Seeing Adam Peters walking the streets of Mobile, Ala., on this particular Wednesday night, glued to his phone, wasn’t peculiar. The NFL scouting community descends on the Senior Bowl’s host city annually in late January. Of course, the Washington Commanders’ new general manager would join the fray.
The oddity involved knowing the conversation wasn’t likely about draft prospects. Rather, the prospects of the organization’s biggest hire since Peters’ two weeks before. That night, Jan. 31, was when the organization knew Dan Quinn would become its next head coach.
Perhaps the decision to choose the former Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator was made a few minutes before or after Peters’ stroll. News broke the following day and became official over the weekend. Seismic change began three weeks earlier with the firing of Ron Rivera after four seasons. Washington had its next leaders in tow.
The Commanders were never in sole control of their destiny despite the competence, vision and sanity emanating from the ownership group led by managing partner Josh Harris. They inhabit a world where other masters-of-the-universe types have agendas. The Commanders already conquered competitors in the general manager market by landing Peters. Like it or not, those other organizations would have their day.
Washington’s search committee endured a wild January that saw the Commanders pivot from both Ben Johnson, who decided to remain in Detroit, and Mike Macdonald, who was hired as head coach of the Seattle Seahawks. Quinn remained a leading consideration throughout the deliberate process. The acclaim from the likes of the Cowboys’ All-Pro Micah Parsons and countless others suggests whether Quinn was the first, second or third choice, he might be the right one.
Unlike Peters’ nighttime walk, the trek to get there was hardly tranquil.
Commanders hire Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn as coach
Washington’s ownership entered the coaching search with an open mind and significant support. They began their homework on potential new GM and head-coaching candidates months before the Jan. 8 firing of Rivera.
Adding two experienced executives — former Golden State Warriors GM Bob Myers and ex-Minnesota Vikings GM Rick Spielman — provided the owners with seasoned pros for the final stages. Having been part of three Super Bowl champions and other contending teams, Peters made his high-level search debut after being named Washington’s front-office lead.
Washington locked up Peters before the San Francisco 49ers’ assistant GM took another interview. Johnson and Macdonald took the tour. Seattle convinced Macdonald, now the league’s youngest head coach, to choose a life near the Space Needle over one by the Washington Monument. Beyond two interviews, including a face-to-face chat last Monday, there were strong overtures and, league sources tell The Athletic, a job offer made to Macdonald by the Commanders. Any full-court press of the former Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator may have remained shelved if Johnson had the courtesy to attend a Tuesday meeting that many viewed as a formality to his hiring.
Washington held Johnson, the offensive coordinator for one of the league’s most dynamic attacks the past two seasons, in high regard at the onset. Finding the next Sean McVay or Kyle Shanahan, men who spent time in Washington as assistants, is the siren’s song for owners and executives seeking sustained success on the field and at the box office. The NFL world praised the Lions’ offensive coordinator as next in line. In the context of alpha head coaches, it turned out they were coveting a false idol.
When pundits and internet rumors flooded the zone for weeks with claims that Johnson, 37, was the overwhelming favorite, if not a “lock” hire in Washington — a downside of Harris running a largely leak-free search — minimal pushback occurred. The gleefully ignorant voices were unaware or chose not to care that the consummation assumptions came from an echo chamber of gossip rather than factual information.
“I think you have to consider where all that came from,” said a league source close to the situation, “and who does it benefit?”
When newbie power brokers like Johnson and Macdonald attempt to control their newfound leverage, wild twists and turns may follow whether experienced advisers try steering them toward calm waters. Attempts to anticipate those next moves can make interested suitors appear lost.
That’s how it was perceived in some corners when Johnson told Washington and Seattle that he pushed the brakes on leaving the Motor City. The rub is that Johnson, who pulled himself out of 2022 opportunities despite his burgeoning hot coach status, and his agent shared their exit plans by texting team officials while the Commanders’ group was on a flight from the Washington, D.C., area to meet in Michigan.
“I like Ben. A year ago, he knew he wasn’t ready,” one high-ranking executive with another team texted. “I get a feeling he still thinks he needs time. Who knows? But to break (the decision) while they were in the air is a poor choice.”
Whatever the theory, league sources, whether they cared about Washington’s plight or not, shared one unified sentiment: The Commanders got screwed.
“Outrageous. Simply outrageous,” said a league source familiar with the situation. “That’s not how you conduct business. It is how you ruin your reputation.”
When Macdonald, the creative tactician version of Johnson on the defensive side, signed with Seattle the next day, local blame landed on Washington’s ownership and management. That was typically accurate over the past two decades under former owner Dan Snyder. Having been set up for a sexy hire after years of enduring reminders that several significant play callers escaped, Washington fans felt the rug pulled out from under them. Outside perception charged the Commanders with picking through leftovers for their next head coach.
Angst crept into search committee conversations, but not desperation. After all, two weeks earlier, the organization was lauded for hiring a rising front-office star in Peters. Building a sustained winner didn’t stop, even if fans and others pining for Johnson (unnecessarily) wondered if the first-time general manager and new ownership were up to the task.
This camp discounted any fondness for the candidate behind door No. 3.
Winning is the ultimate elixir. Nobody knows which coach would best help the medicine go down. That’s why Washington’s interview process was live and not a perfunctory exercise.
The Commanders, coming off a 4-13 campaign with the league’s worst defense, snagged — from a loathed rival — the coordinator who directed a unit that led the NFL in takeaways twice and ranked top-seven in points allowed in each of Quinn’s three seasons. Quinn gets dinged as a “retread” hire even though Bill Belichick, Pete Carroll and Andy Reid — all recent Super Bowl champions — fall into that bucket.
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The unknowns with Johnson and Macdonald, both two-year coordinators, are whether they rocket to the league’s coaching apex or become the latest supernovas unable to transition from coordinator to the pilot seat. Taking that mystery trip is far more enticing than hitching a ride to been-there, done-that ville.
Quinn was Atlanta’s head coach in the 2016 Super Bowl and the defensive coordinator during Seattle’s back-to-back Super Bowl appearances, including the 2013 “Legion of Boom” champs. Naysayers note that the Falcons’ success came with Shanahan running the offense and ended when he left for San Francisco. Quinn’s last game, a 48-32 playoff loss to Green Bay, left a dubious last impression.
At his introductory news conference last month, Peters said the choice wouldn’t be limited to an offensive or defensive box, but rather “the best leader for this organization.” Passionate comments from Parsons and Quinn’s other former players show why the coach fits that job description.
“I hope those players buy in and play extremely hard for him,” Parsons told NFL Network at this year’s Pro Bowl event, “and understand that ain’t no one going to love them and care more about them than Dan Quinn. So, man, please appreciate his presence, appreciate his greatness and take care of my guy.”
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There are superficial and resume lines that match his predecessor, Rivera. Defensive-oriented coaches with a preference for a four-lineman base package. Both took NFC South teams (Carolina for Rivera) to one Super Bowl but have break-even winning percentages. Quinn’s head-coaching record is 43-42. Rivera fell below .500 (102-103) after the Commanders lost their final eight games this season.
Each gets promoted as a culture-changer, though longtime Washington executive and Super Bowl MVP Doug Williams sees a difference. “I don’t feel no culture change … but I feel good about Dan Quinn,” Williams said on 106.7 The Fan Sunday morning.
Part of Rivera’s downfall was having the final say in personnel — no worries for Quinn with Peters here. As for coaching acumen and daily impact, team and league sources state any direct one-to-one comparisons fall flat. Quinn, a Salisbury University (Maryland) Hall of Famer, isn’t the type to let narratives shape his approach.
“People are going to bang on the hire, but (Washington) wanted a leader and got one,” another front-office executive said. “(Dan) will bring great energy, passion and the ability to connect and gain respect with his players. There will be no shortcuts. That team will play with toughness, or those players won’t be there. He’s just as good a person outside the building.”
News broke Sunday night about another coach set to enter the building. Washington is hiring former Arizona Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury as its next offensive coordinator, team and league sources told The Athletic. The reveal comes one day after Kingsbury, Patrick Mahomes’ college coach and one of Caleb Williams’ tutors last season at USC, passed on taking the offensive coordinator job with the Las Vegas Raiders.
Having a former head coach running the offense allows Quinn to focus on the defense and his broad head coach duties. Kingsbury becomes the primary teacher tasked with developing a first-year signal caller. Quarterbacks Drake Maye (North Carolina) and Jayden Daniels (LSU) are in play for the No. 2 selection to compete with or supplant incumbent Sam Howell.
Joe Whitt Jr. followed Quinn from Dallas and was named the Commanders’ new defensive coordinator, league sources confirmed. The 17-year assistant joined the Cowboys in 2021 as a pass game coordinator/secondary coach. He helped DaRon Bland become the league leader in interceptions this season, two years after Trevon Diggs did the same.
The hiring of Quinn and Peters gained support from Jonathan Allen, one of Washington’s defensive leaders and a player “frustrated” with the team’s direction entering the offseason.
“I haven’t met a player — and I’ve probably talked to hundreds of players who played for (Quinn) — that does not love him,” the two-time Pro Bowl selection said at a local radio event on Friday. “The thing that makes him a great coach is how he galvanizes a team and gets guys to play hard. That’s half the battle with winning.”
Once Johnson was out of the running, the Commanders thought they were going to get Macdonald until the Seahawks swooped in with more money, league sources told The Athletic.
Johnson and Macdonald represented the perceived wunderkind options from each side of the ball. Slotting the offensive mind to the team with a projected rookie quarterback made for a tremendous on-paper fit. It was the same for the coordinator of the first defense to lead the league in points allowed, sacks and turnovers in the same season to a Seahawks squad that plays in a division with McVay and Shanahan.
The Commanders reconsidered their remaining paths, headlined by Quinn, 53, and Macdonald, 36. Though both coordinators were in play for the Seahawks, Macdonald was the one winging across the country for a Wednesday meeting in Seattle. He signed a contract before the day ended.
Washington more than checked in before Macdonald committed, league sources confirmed. ESPN and NBC Sports also reported late contact by Washington to Macdonald.
Another indicator: The typical term length for head coach contracts is four to five years. Macdonald agreed to a six-year deal. Leverage is helpful. Also in Seattle’s favor: more defensive talent, a quicker path back to contention and modern practice and game day facilities.
Beyond Quinn, Ravens assistant Anthony Weaver, since named Miami’s defensive coordinator, and Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn, who the team interviewed as part of its Detroit trip, remained considerations. Harris’ desire for information led the search committee to briefly revisit Belichick the night they made their final decision, according to league sources.
Washington hadn’t formally interviewed the six-time Super Bowl-winning head coach, but there were some conversations. Harris never favored the 71-year-old for this retooling. However, Belichick did get support from some on the committee. After some discussion, they pulled his name off the table and went with Quinn.
Former Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel was never in serious consideration, either, despite a tidal wave of support around the league for Washington to meet with him. An executive league source in the NFC shared with The Athletic his theory: “The Commanders passed on Vrabel because of (Titans GM) Ran Carthon. He fired (Vrabel). Adam Peters was not going to hire the coach that his friend just fired. That’s how this works sometimes.”
Eventually, the group decided the one candidate remaining that it eyed from the start was the call.
Everyone in the NFL world reacted to Johnson’s announcement.
The gasps from non-playing Senior Bowl attendees and buzzing text messages reverberated across the bleachers and concourse at Hancock Whitney Stadium. No disrespect to the prospects in action at the annual pre-draft showcase, but they became background noise for many when Johnson’s reveal became public.
The questions, thoughts and takes continued into the evening as NFL scouts, coaches, media members and countless others connected to the sport roamed the social scene in cozy downtown Mobile. Those not situated at the birthplace of Mardi Gras but within arm’s reach of a text message device floated their hearsay.
We know scouts assess the physical talent and the mental makeup of the individual into whom they may invest millions of dollars. Such projections of other human beings are the definition of an inexact science. Coaches are older than early 20-somethings, but the same principle applies.
Should Washington, at the start of the interview process, have predicted the Lions would blow a 17-point halftime lead in their NFC Championship Game loss to San Francisco 48 hours before its scheduled second meeting? Would Johnson and his family have a more daring view of head coach life if Detroit won the Super Bowl?
“He got out of that San Francisco loss, having been walloped emotionally. Think about what he went through,” said an NFC front-office executive. “To consider where he wanted to (work and live) at that exact moment … if he was self-aware to make the right decision for him, I commend him.”
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NFL hiring rules prevented Washington from interviewing candidates in person until the respective teams were eliminated from the playoffs. Knowing the coordinator pulled out of head-coaching consideration last year, maybe Washington should have moved before former Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris became the Atlanta Falcons’ head coach.
The candidate class lacked a must-get offensive assistant type after Johnson. The two hired, Brian Callahan (Titans) and Dave Canales (Panthers), were scooped up several days before Johnson bowed out. Texans offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik agreed to an extension with Houston last week, perhaps a sign he also believed more seasoning was required before ascending to a head-coaching role. Slowik, 36, met with Washington twice.
Jump on any of those names, and there would be complaints about not waiting for Johnson even if Washington already recognized clues he remained commitment-phobic. Some reports and insights meshed with the notion about Johnson not being ready to rumble. He is considered a coach who prefers holing up in his office, coming up with game plans and playing with mad scientist vibes rather than leading a locker room.
Another main view centered on reports that Johnson’s camp brought with them hefty compensation demands for the second-year coordinator who schemed Detroit’s offense into the elite category. League sources putting their chips in this bucket cite the agent, Richmond Flowers, as hoping to void Johnson’s head-coaching apprehension with a Godfather offer he couldn’t refuse.
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Other reports had teams balking at those demands, leading to Johnson’s side pre-emptively saying, it’s not you, it’s me. Also, teams supposedly soured on Johnson for poor interviews, or the coordinator didn’t see a fit with these owners. The claws coming out of these conflicting reports are why teams go through the interview process.
Washington couldn’t have known Johnson would bail in this manner or that Macdonald would choose another. But Harris, owner of NBA and NHL franchises, wasn’t blind to the possibility that their desires might be unfulfilled.
“It’s going to be a rapid but thorough process,” Harris said shortly after releasing Rivera. “Again, we’re not in full control of the timeframe because what we’re ultimately trying to do is end up with the best people, and the best people generally have alternatives.”
After months of prep work, the Commanders’ new decision-makers made sure they also had viable alternatives with the game on the line.
(Top photo: Andy Lewis / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)