When the Dallas Cowboys hired Mike Nolan to coordinate the defense last season, there was an open question as to how much the defense would rely on 4-3 looks and how much the defense would rely on 3-4 looks. By changing the number of down defensive linemen from four (in a 4-3) to three (in a 3-4), teams fundamentally change the responsibilities of most of the front seven players. Accordingly, teams need different body types to fill those different roles, so turning over a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 unit can be a difficult process.
Nolan and head coach Mike McCarthy scoffed at the distinguished systems and made a push for multiple defenses. As Nolan said in January last year: "Players will determine what we can do and what we cannot do—not the scheme. The scheme is basically what you have to utilize the players, it goes the other way. I tell you what, 3-4 and 4-3 is really just a personnel decision to get your best 11 on the field. Outside of that, it's just spacing between the 11 players you have.”
So, the players determine what teams can and cannot do, and for Nolan’s Cowboys, what they could not do was… defend. Stop the offense. Generate turnovers. Get off the field. Whatever you want to say. The Cowboys allowed the most points in franchise history at 473 and the second-most yards in franchise history in 6,183. They were 23rd in defensive DVOA, 26th in third-down rate surrendered at 46.9%, and 23rd in team sacks; this was a bad unit.
Nolan was fired, despite the fact that few of the players on the roster were players that he brought in, because his scheme did nothing to maximize them. The young players didn’t get better; the veteran players didn’t experience a boost. Everybody got worse. Enter Dan Quinn, the ex-head coach of the Atlanta Falcons and Super Bowl-winning defensive coordinator of the Seattle Seahawks. Quinn was an understandable hire, in that his system was either familiar to or inspired the past schemes ran in Dallas, Rod Marinelli’s 4-3 base, and Kris Richard’s Seattle cover-3 approach; that familiarity could help get star players like DeMarcus Lawrence and Leighton Vander Esch back on the horse of their previously bright careers.
But of course, there’s a reason Quinn was fired, and why that style of defense is going out of vogue altogether. Atlanta’s defense finished 14th in DVOA last year but was manned by Raheem Morris for most of the season following Quinn’s firing in early October. In the five seasons previous, Quinn’s defense was ranked 17th, 30th, 17th, 19th, and 18th by DVOA, respectively. Only once was the defense a total train wreck, but it was never really above average. Perhaps Quinn would bring familiarity, but even then, only a modest ceiling could be assumed for the Cowboys’ defense under him. And given recent post-draft comments, perhaps even familiarity is no longer a feather in Quinn’s cap. Micah Parsons recently said on the Ross Tucker podcast that “[Quinn] is gonna’ run a base 3-4” in reference to his scheme, and Quinn elaborated on those comments in a presser, saying that his defense has always been a mixture. With nickel personnel on the field, he plays with a four-down front, while in base, they’ll be in a three-down look.
The comments echo that which McCarthy presented in March after Quinn was hired.
“I want to say this the right way: So much is made about the 3-4 and 4-3, it's really not about that,” McCarthy said. “It's more about the techniques that fit the players and their ability to play. We are player over scheme. I've always been that way.”
On Quinn, specifically, McCarthy said: “If you look at the way he played in Seattle and Atlanta, from my view, it is different. The ability to have the 3-4 components to it and the 4-3 components based on how you view what that is, then it's more about the techniques and alignments, assignments, and front that allows for guys to play. You'll see both those components. It's not a whole lot different than what Mike (Nolan) was trying to get to last year.”
These are simultaneously encouraging and terrifying comments. It’s clear that Nolan’s orientation on multiple looks and blending defensive structures was not solely his initiative, but also belonged to the new-look McCarthy in his second stint as an NFL head coach. And being player-oriented is good; being locked in on putting players in the best position to succeed, instead of forcing a scheme, is an admirable pursuit. But again: I point to the defensive performance last year.
Now, the Cowboys are trying to solve that problem by adding new talent and firing Nolan. Nolan couldn’t get the best out of the players in-house? Let’s get rid of Nolan and also add new players to the house. Makes sense, right? With players like Parsons, who is viewed as a stack linebacker that can offer rush ability given his frame, this is an exciting idea. But then there’s cornerback Kelvin Joseph, who is naturally quick and fluid but struggles to find the ball, playing through contact, and avoiding penalties. There isn’t an ideal role for this player just yet—he needs time to develop. But the Cowboys need a starting corner, and they selected him in the second round of the 2021 NFL Draft.
Dallas also drafted Nahshon Wright, a 6-foot-4 corner out of Oregon State who was viewed as a seventh-round flier by most public boards and resources. Wright is clearly a player within the Quinn mold of cornerbacks: super long, super tall, able to play press, and dominate off the line of scrimmage. That isn’t drafting players and figuring out scheme later, that’s drafting for a scheme? And Chauncey Golston in the third round? That’s also earlier than many expected. Both Golston and Osa Odighizuwa, another third-round draft pick, are 270-pound defensive ends who can rush from the inside on later downs. That role was popularized in large part by Michael Bennett, who played under Quinn in Seattle, and it was a role that Quinn tried and failed to fill with Adrian Clayborn and John Cominsky in Atlanta.
This doesn’t smell like drafting players over scheme, not in the slightest. And while the narrative blending of 4-3 and 3-4 sounds nice, it also smells fishy; the 4-3 under front that Quinn uses sure looks a lot like a 3-4 front, but it’s still a 4-3 under. Quinn is going to be using the same body types and roles that he always has, and those body types and roles are different than what Nolan used. They’re also the same body types and roles that failed in Atlanta and have been struggling across the league, as the NFL moves to more two-high defenses altogether.
Don’t take the coachspeak cheese. Quinn is running his system, and his system needs certain players, so the Cowboys went out and got those players for him. As with all scheme transitions, it will take time—and with the Cowboys depth chart considered, it seems Dallas is in for another long year on the defensive side of the football.