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FRISCO, Texas -- 2020 was an incredibly difficult year for most of the world. That was the case for the Dallas Cowboys defense, too, in the first season of Mike McCarthy's tenure as head coach.

Under then-defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, the Cowboys surrendered 29.6 points per game, ranking 28th in the NFL and allowing the second-most points Dallas has ever given up in a single season (trailing only the 30.8 ppg they allowed in 1960, their inaugural season).

Enter Dan Quinn. McCarthy could immediately empathize with the man he hired to be his next defensive coordinator. Quinn spent six seasons as the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons and, like McCarthy when he was with the Green Bay Packers, led them to a Super Bowl appearance. Also like the current Dallas head coach, Quinn was unceremoniously fired in-season, back in 2020. McCarthy hired him the following offseason in 2021. 

"I think [we're] just common-minded," McCarthy said Thursday when asked about his working relationship with Quinn. "I think just the way we look at the game. We look at the way we're training our football team, the importance of it. Just really staying on top of it, the physical, mental, emotional. Make sure we're constantly in touch with that as far as the developing of everybody, not just the players, but the coaches, particularly young coaches. Dan has a huge heart, just has great understanding of the human element and how it all fits together. I just think from a program culture perspective, I think we both see it the same way."

Quinn's vision for the Dallas defense has certainly come to fruition in his three seasons with the Cowboys. His unit leads the league in quarterback pressure rate (41.4%),  interceptions (59), takeaways (93) and defensive touchdowns (15) since 2021, and because of that success, this postseason may be his last ride with the Cowboys. 

"It's as smooth of a working relationship I've ever been a part of," McCarthy said of Quinn. 

With eight NFL head-coaching vacancies, this production has Quinn on the radar to return to the rank of NFL head coach. The Carolina Panthers, Los Angeles Chargers and Washington Commanders as well as the Tennessee Titans have all put in requests to interview the 53-year-old defensive braintrust of the Cowboys. A return to the Seattle Seahawks could also be in the cards after they moved on from their Super Bowl champion head coach Pete Carroll this week. Quinn was Carroll's defensive coordinator in 2013 and 2014, helping build the Legion of Boom en route to consecutive Super Bowl appearances and a Super Bowl XLVIII title.

"He is deserving of everything that's coming his way," Cowboys safety Jayron Kearse said. "That's the job he's done with his defense, with the job he's done with individuals and myself being one of those guys. He deserves everything that's coming his way. The way he approaches it day to day, the type  of genuine guy he is to the players, you know, he's a guy that anybody would love to play for. So, you know, we, we've been, we've been at the top, we've been at the top since he's gotten here, you know, in a lot of categories and, you can't keep those type of people, those type of guys for too long and it just comes with the business, you know, he went out there and put the work in, got his guys together and we're playing good football."

Cowboys defense under Dan Quinn since 2021

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One of the biggest successes of Quinn's time running the Dallas defense is the development of All-Pro edge rusher Micah Parsons, the team's 12th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. Parsons entered the NFL as an inside linebacker, but injuries to others his rookie year led to him filling in along the defensive line, allowing to unleash his pass-rushing chops. Under Quinn's guidance, Parsons has been named a Pro Bowler in each of this first three seasons with a third consecutive First-Team All-Pro nod likely coming soon. 

He is one of just five players to total at least 40 sacks (40.5) within his first three seasons. In 2023, Parsons led the NFL in quarterback pressures (103), quarterback pressure rate (21.8%) and pass rush win rate (35.3%), which is when a defender beats his block in less than 2.5 seconds. Remarkable, considering Parsons was double-teamed on 35% of his pass rush plays in 2023, the most in the league among edge players, according to the NFL's Next Gen Stats. No other edge rusher was double-teamed at 30% or higher rate. His and Quinn's connection goes above and beyond that between a coach and his star pupil. 

"That's like my OG, for real," Parsons said Thursday. "He means a lot to me, not only because it's just about football. I think Q – we were talking today, because he did the college thing [served as Florida's defensive coordinator from 2011-2012] like [Nick] Saban – he said 'yeah' and I said, 'You're just such a great mentor.' I think he does a great job of finding ways for you to love the game and finding ways to go around the game. It doesn't always have to be hard-nosed, 'I'm the coach.' It's more of a friendship. We go through what I don't like, what I do like. He doesn't just treat me like a player, he treats me like a friend. He's always there when I need him and we're not afraid to have those hard conversations whether it's father to son or player to coach. We have them no matter what."

Parsons has talked before at length about wanting to be up in the Cowboys Ring of Honor like Hall of Famers Jimmy Johnson, Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin and Charles Haley, but he joked that should another team snap Quinn up, he would be interested in a reunion. 

"Dan's my guy and if he do leave me, it's always love. And he might take me with him, you never know," Parsons said with a smile and a laugh.

Kearse is another player whose career trajectory skyrocketed under Quinn's tutelage. Kearse was a seventh-round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft by the Minnesota Vikings. In his first five NFL seasons with the Vikings (2016-2019) and the Detroit Lions (2020), he only started 12 games on defense while predominantly being a special teams contributor. In Dallas, Kearse has become one of the Cowboys' most reliable defenders, starting at least 13 games in each of the last three seasons while lining up at safety as well as linebacker this season to help ease the burden of year-ending injuries to linebackers Leighton Vander Esch (neck) and DeMarvion Overshown (torn ACL). 

"For me, it's not really even about advice," Kearse said when asked about a specific example as to how Quinn has helped him. "It's just his belief that he had in me. I came here in my sixth year in the league, played a little bit with Detroit, my first time starting was in Minnesota. I played a little bit on defense, but I was mainly special teams. Just the belief he had in me that I can go out there and be one of the top guys doing it and the positions that he put in. That's something that helped me become the player that I am. Just knowing I have Q on my side 100%, and it took me a long way as far as just believing in myself. I always felt like I could do it, but having somebody else that doesn't owe me that, it did a lot for me."

Now, his Cowboys defense looks to give back to him this postseason starting with Sunday afternoon against the seventh-seeded Packers. 

"It's the nature of the business," Parsons said. "It could possibly be my last ride with Q, and if it is, we're gonna make sure it's a damn good one."