The NFL is a constantly evolving league, and as the schemes on both sides of the ball change, so too must each team adapt their own schemes to keep up. A year ago, the Cowboys came to the conclusion that their offense needed a change, which is why Kellen Moore left for the Chargers and Mike McCarthy took control of calling offensive plays.
That decision very clearly worked out. The Cowboys improved in nearly every offensive category, with career years from both Dak Prescott and CeeDee Lamb while also witnessing the emergence of Jake Ferguson. It’s a big reason why the Cowboys would be foolish to move on from McCarthy at this juncture, as the head coach is a big part of figuring out how to best maximize all this talent on offense.
In a bit of irony, though, the Cowboys need change elsewhere now. That comes on the defensive side, where Dan Quinn has begun to overstay his welcome despite still being a hot commodity in the head coach hiring cycle. Quinn just concluded his third season in Dallas coordinating the defense, and he’s largely had success with some great results in each of those years.
That said, there is a very clear Achilles heel of Quinn’s defenses that has yet to be solved. In every season with Quinn at the helm, the run defense has been an issue. That’s partially by design, as Quinn’s aggressive scheme places little emphasis on stopping the run and almost all the focus on rushing the passer. It’s also a big reason why everyone keeps saying that this defense is built to play with a lead: they’re really only good at playing the pass, and opponents have to pass it a lot when the Cowboys are playing with the lead.
That naturally creates an issue when they’re not playing with the lead, but there’s a bigger issue at hand. Quinn’s philosophical approach was perfect for the NFL when he arrived in Dallas in 2021, but offensive trends have evolved even since then. The proliferation of the Shanahan style offense – there were 15 teams who operated this scheme in 2023 – has proven problematic for Quinn’s defense.
Since Dan Quinn was made #Cowboys DC in 2021:
Vs. Shanahan coaching tree teams
35.8% success rate allowed
0.045 EPA per play against
5.5 yards allowed per play
Vs. non-SCT teams
32.7% success rate allowed
-0.094 EPA per play allowed
5.0 yards per play allowed
— John Owning (@JohnOwning) January 16, 2024
The Cowboys saw this type of offense plenty this year – seven times, including the Packers in the Wild Card round – and rarely had success against it. That’s because this offense is built around its run game, which is based on the wide outside zone run scheme. The passing game is married to that run game, which means that pass plays look exactly like run plays at the snap. Combine that with the heavy amounts of motion these offenses employ and it’s kryptonite for a defense that aims to play fast and forward.
That explains why Quinn’s defenses have almost always struggled against these offenses, with their most recent matchup featuring a historically bad night for both Quinn personally and the Cowboys as a franchise. The concerning part of this issue isn’t so much that the weakness exists, but rather that Quinn has shown little interest in adapting to stop it.
Against the Packers, Quinn continued his usual approach on defense with Dallas lining up in a dime package on 86% of plays despite Green Bay using 12 personnel on 47% of their plays. The Packers ran out of 12 personnel 65% of the time in that game and recorded a sky high 39.4% success rate. Quinn never showed much adaptability to their run heavy game plan.
That is why the Cowboys now find themselves needing to tweak their defensive scheme in much the same way McCarthy tweaked the offensive scheme coming into this year. What Quinn has done is clearly successful on the whole, and there’s no need to completely abandon it, but changes are necessary. Specifically, the way this defense prepares against the run and the way they communicate when offenses go in motion must be tweaked if the Cowboys are to succeed against the most popular offensive scheme in the league.
Here’s the million dollar question, though: is Quinn the one to make these changes? Obviously, Quinn is now preparing for a busy schedule of head coaching interviews, and could be leaving Dallas whether or not he’s interested in coming up with a solution to these problems. Could Dallas essentially tell him to take whichever job he can if he’s not on the same page here?
Assuming Quinn is gone, though, that opens up new possibilities. Pass game coordinator Joe Whitt Jr. has long been seen as the heir apparent to Quinn, but would the Cowboys want an internal hire if they’re looking for schematic tweaks? Or could they look for a different coach, from a different scheme, to make those changes while still keeping the same aggressive mindset intact?
All of these questions will be answered at some point this offseason, and it will be interesting to see how the Cowboys self scout and try to correct these issues. But one thing is clear: this defense is in need of some serious adjustments if they’re going to have continued success moving forward.