USA Today

Jerry Jones is being a bit more thorough this time around in his search for a defensive coordinator, and he wanted a word with former Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn -- amongst others -- this past weekend. The Hall of Fame owner was "fuming" late in the season after watching his historically bad defense get eviscerated by the Baltimore Ravens in Week 13, in what ultimately became the final nail in the coffin for defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. Despite a three-game win streak in December that included a rash of takeaways, the defense remained the worst in the league in several major categories, and Nolan's firing to end the year came on the heels of an undisciplined showing in the season-ending Week 17 loss to the New York Giants.

This officially kicked the door open for Dallas to begin formally interviewing potential replacements and, as it turns out, they had already begun building their list weeks before Nolan was sent packing, sources tell CBS Sports. That allowed them to hit the ground running with interviews, and they've already held three discussions with external candidates, those same sources confirmed, with Quinn set to formally interview on Monday after a virtual interview on Saturday -- both Joe Whitt, Jr. and Jason Simmons having done so virtually during NFL Super Wild-Card Weekend.

The latter two have direct ties to head coach Mike McCarthy from time spent together as part of the Green Bay Packers organization, and it's no secret McCarthy prefers assistants he has a history with. Whitt is currently the Falcons secondary coach and pass game coordinator, also having spent several games season with Quinn this season -- prior to Quinn himself being let go by owner Arthur Blank in October. Simmons spent the majority of his non-playing NFL career with the Packers before signing on with the Carolina Panthers this season as their secondary coach and defensive passing game coordinator, a former safety who was once a former fifth-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1998. 

The headliner in this group is obviously Quinn, who not only has head coaching experience that includes an appearance in the Super Bowl with the Falcons, but is also a former Broyles Award winner who spent time with the Seattle Seahawks -- as their defensive coordinator during their run to Super Bowl victory that was largely fueled by the legendary Legion of Boom. The Seahawks defense led the league in takeaways that season (2014), but also allowed the fewest yards and points allowed per game, the first team to do so since the famed 1985 Chicago Bears, and it was Quinn who helped propel Kris Richard to notoriety. 

Richard worked as Quinn's defensive backs coach before taking the reins in 2015, when Quinn left to sign on as head coach of the Falcons, and Richard ultimately landed with the Cowboys as passing game coordinator in 2018 before being moved on from during the coaching regime change.

This time around, the Joneses are [very] interested in the teacher this time around, so much so that a deal could land early this week for the 50-year-old in Dallas.

The hiring of Quinn would require an adjustment to the defense much like the hiring of Nolan did, but Nolan hadn't coordinated anyone's defense since 2014, making it infinitely more difficult to do so in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic. It's presumed the NFL will have a traditional offseason in 2021 -- or at least one close to it -- which would give the incoming defensive coordinator better footing in that regard, be it Quinn or someone else. And while his ending with the Falcons was unceremonious, Quinn is as talented a defensive coordinator as you'll see, given the right recipe of talent (something the Cowboys can bolster this offseason via free agency and particularly the NFL draft). 

Expect more interviews by the Cowboys in the next several days or more as they take a more measured approach at avoiding the mistake they made with Nolan, unless Quinn nails his in-person Q&A. Once the top role is filled, much like their divorce from defensive line coach Jim Tomsula, the team is expected to make additional moves in the defensive coaching ranks, as noted weeks ago.

As CBS Sports reported in early December, Jones will and has already begun taking part in choosing Nolan's replacement, one that still sees George Edwards -- the Cowboys senior defensive assistant -- as the frontrunner to land the position. If there's anyone who could change the tone of the race, it's Quinn, whose résumé bests that of Edwards, but it's Edwards who has familiarity with the Joneses from his time as linebackers coach for talent like Dexter Coakley -- going on to become one of Mike Zimmer's best minds as coordinator for a rabid Vikings defense in the mid- to late-2010s. 

And considering Jones is lacking patience as of late, which is to say he's not much interested in giving unproven minds a shot (unless they blow him away in an interview), it makes sense Quinn and Edwards would be lead horses in this derby.

There are whispers of other candidates who could land an interview as well, including Jim Haslett -- separate sources tell CBS Sports -- one of McCarthy's trusted minds that helped him during his one-year hiatus from football. Haslett is a former defensive coordinator/head coach of the New Orleans Saints, Pittsburgh Steelers and Los Angeles Rams, and is currently the linebackers coach for the Tennessee Titans. With the Titans' season having now ended at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens, he and the Cowboys are free to have a pointed discussion, if the team's level of interest evolves to that point. Interest in Haslett could be justifiably quantified as equal to or slightly less than that of Whitt and Simmons, however, and a discussion with him might ultimately be due diligence.

There's also the possibility Quinn lands the job and somehow convinces Whitt to follow him, but that seems unlikely at the moment, although not impossible. After all, the two weren't together long in Atlanta and it would seem a challenge to win a job Whitt interviewed for then offer him a role that might be viewed by Whitt as a consolation prize. Maybe he'd take it, but it would be a lateral move and there's still the matter of who will become head coach in Atlanta -- a point he'd want to take into account. 

Everything is on the table here, including a potential discussion with Richard to return to Dallas, assuming he'd want to.

Locating a new defensive coordinator only one year after believing they made the right call applies pressure to the Cowboys to get it right in 2021, in a fluid process that the Cowboys are approaching more cautiously this time around, and one that suddenly sees Quinn in a dead heat with Edwards -- while several dark horses try desperately to overtake them both. It's also key to note a hiring of Quinn wouldn't be viewed as a slight toward Edwards, but instead the Cowboys attempting to have their cake and eat it too.

And after starving defensively in 2020, no one could blame them.