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'I love doing hard (expletive)': How Dan Quinn is bringing swagger back to the Dallas Cowboys defense

USA TODAY SPORTS logo USA TODAY SPORTS 9/9/2021 Jori Epstein, USA TODAY

FRISCO, Texas — Dan Quinn patrols the sideline of the Dallas Cowboys' northern practice field, the intentionality in his day evident from the Army-print baseball cap blocking the North Texas sun to the trademark Jordans his players consider one of many indicators their defensive coordinator exudes swagger.

“Left shoulder, leverage, close off, close off,” Quinn tells linebackers and defensive backs cycling through open-field tackle drills three days before their season opener. “Know what you got. Know what you got.”

It’s a fitting remark for Dallas’ first-year defensive coordinator, who has consistently shown he knows what he has – and how, in turn, he can strengthen his scheme and personnel usage accordingly. Handsomely compensated pass rusher DeMarcus Lawrence is far more proficient in a 4-3 base than a 3-4 hybrid? Quinn considers that in his installation. Rookie linebacker Micah Parsons shows a knack for blitzing? Quinn meets one-on-one with the first-round selection before or after practice in order to complete his dual-curriculum education as a coverage linebacker and pass rusher.

a group of baseball players standing on top of a grass covered field: Dan Quinn was hired to be the Cowboys' defensive coordinator after five-plus seasons as head coach of the Falcons. © Jason Parkhurst, USA TODAY Sports Dan Quinn was hired to be the Cowboys' defensive coordinator after five-plus seasons as head coach of the Falcons.

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Quinn’s teaching tactics – “learning is a superpower,” he guides – excite players, his hands-on practices infusing each with juice.

Yes, Quinn will show his defensive linemen how he’d cycle through a swim move. He drops his hand to the dirt to demonstrate a proper get-off, how he recommends they take the first step across a blocker.

“I’ve got my hands on this [expletive] guy and what do I do?” Quinn asks players when teaching one countermove. “I want you moving and chasing.”

It’s fair to wonder what Quinn, since taking the Cowboys' coordinator job in January, is chasing. Quinn arrives in Dallas after five-and-a-half years as Falcons head coach, his tenure highlighted by a Super Bowl appearance following the 2016 season but ending disappointingly when he was fired after an 0-5 start in 2020.

Quinn insists he’s simply focused on living in the moment, embracing his coordinator responsibilities so convincingly that head coach Mike McCarthy said this week he’s “a little jealous (at) how much fun he’s having.”

Quinn doesn’t take the opportunity for granted.

“I love doing hard (expletive) with a group of people,” he said. “I love being at the game, in the line, right on it. To be here is why I was pumped when Mike offered me the opportunity to come and join him.

“Having that chance and getting a chance to work with the guys here is absolutely where I want to be.”

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‘Very big chips on their shoulder’


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Quinn brought energy to The Star upon his arrival. But he did not start off with a smoothly functioning operation. The 2020 Cowboys defense allowed more points (473) and touchdowns (57) than any prior unit in Cowboys history. Only the Texans allowed more rushing yards per game than the Cowboys’ 158.8 and Dallas’ defense allowed big plays of 20-plus yards a whopping 69 times.

Communication had broken down. Missed assignments and mental errors abounded. Players lost trust in each other and their coaches, McCarthy even lambasting the defense after a December game with Baltimore for a lack of effort.

Quinn didn’t flinch.

“That’s the great thing about football, man. You get to go out and prove it,” Quinn said. “The best of the best, you get to prove it. And I have a sense there will be some people on this defense that will have very big chips on their shoulder with much to prove. Coaches included.”

Along came training camp sessions on tackling and coverages, drills to hone tracking defenders and packages requiring varied communication of coverages. Speed and ball skills received heavy emphasis, players acknowledging Quinn held them to high standards and, says cornerback Anthony Brown, “he’s not taking no half-assing.”

Quinn even employed a rap song for note-taking purposes, challenging players to write as many words as they could alongside the breakneck pace of Run-DMC’s “Sucker M.C.s” before they ultimately discerned they were nearly helpless. Quinn’s instruction would fly by fast, he wanted to them to realize. Players needed to think critically and take notes selectively in order to eventually play fast themselves.

“He was like everything I say – you’re not going to get it down,” Parsons said. “So you’ve got to take in the key message of what I’m trying to say. That’s basically what he was trying to say: Take in what you understand.”

Evaluating against meaningful competition awaits, but early results of training camp are exceedingly positive. Even before quarterback Dak Prescott was sidelined with a shoulder injury, the defense began dominating the offense in team periods.

“The clarity, the intensity, the focus every single day,” linebacker Leighton Vander Esch said. “We’re ready to play fast. I think we’ve shown that in practice.”

Attack mode

On Thursday, Quinn’s Cowboys defense will take its first shot against the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. There will be no easing in of the new scheme and heavily shuffled defensive personnel; defenders are acutely aware that mistakes will be used against them.

“If he catches you sleeping, he’s going to exploit it play after play after play,” Vander Esch said of facing 14-time Pro Bowl quarterback Tom Brady. “I mean, he is a student of the game. Right now, he probably qualifies as a professor at this point. The guy does it all. He’s an extremely crazy, good athlete.

“You’ve got to be on, you’ve got to be focused every single play and not looking too far ahead or a play behind you.”

Quinn has tutored Cowboys defenders in the need to pressure Brady, Vander Esch and rookie defensive tackle Osa Odighizuwa each parroting the need to “get him off his spot.” Quinn guides them on how Brady’s passer rating plummets when under pressure, players also reiterating the team goal that 11 players are running to the ball on each play.

“Wherever the ball at, that’s where I’ll be at,” Lawrence said. “It don’t matter where I line up at, it’s all about being ready the first player to get to the quarterback.”

The challenge remains hefty, but players welcome it. Vander Esch said he’s eager to face tight end Rob Gronkowski; cornerback Trevon Diggs, similarly, embraces how big-bodied Chris Godwin and shifty Antonio Brown will threaten his secondary differently.

Players laud one another’s efforts and development in the seven weeks since they reported to training camp, but they’re also quick to laud the coach who’s reenergized their beliefs in each other and their defensive system.

“That swagger was here in OTAs once the boys knew we was going straight ahead instead of side to side,” Lawrence said. “Being able to attack, being able to get off the ball and make the offense react to us, I feel like we’re going to be straight.

“(Quinn)’s a go-getter. He’s going to put his best 11 guys on the field and he’s going to send them. That’s what I like about him. He’s in attack mode. I’m in attack mode. So shoot, we’re going to get it.”

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'I love doing hard (expletive)': How Dan Quinn is bringing swagger back to the Dallas Cowboys defense

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