There is plenty of blame to go around for the Dallas Cowboys’ disappointing 2-4 record so far this season. But while injuries and fumbles have been the primary culprit on offense, the Cowboys’ lack of solvency on defense seems to be more about the scheme and failing to connect with players. With two pivotal division games coming up, could Defensive Coordinator Mike Nolan’s job be on the line?
Nolan was brought in this offseason as part of the sweeping changes to the coaching staff with Mike McCarthy’s arrival. They had history from 2005 when Nolan, then coach of the 49ers, made McCarthy his offensive coordinator.
Since the end of his tenure with the 49ers after 2008, Nolan has bounced around the NFL as a coordinator and then as a linebackers coach the last five seasons. He hasn’t been a defensive coordinator since 2014.
Despite this lack of recent NFL notoriety and a significantly different approach to defense from what the Cowboys had under Rod Marinelli, Nolan got the job in Dallas. The early returns are not good; 6th-worst in yards allowed and the worst team in the NFL in points allowed.
Not all of this can be laid at Nolan’s feet. He’s had some pretty key injuries on his side of the ball too; Leighton Vander Esch, Chidobe Awuzie, and Sean Lee have missed the majority of the year and other key players have been playing hurt. The Cowboys lost Gerald McCoy, one of their key offseason upgrades, almost immediately when training camp.
The opponents’ ease of scoring also has plenty to do with field position, which has been helped mightily by Ezekiel Elliott’s new penchant for fumbling and other offensive woes.
However, these mitigating factors don’t fully cover the defense’s sins. They don’t explain why the defensive players look lost, hesitant, and sometimes even unmotivated during games.
A few weeks ago, Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith criticized the complexity of what Mike Nolan was trying to have them do on defense. And earlier this week, anonymous players were far more harsh in their criticism of the coaching staff.
While we don’t what players made those comments and what coaches they were referring to, circumstances lead us to believe it was about the defense. The Cowboys offense, even with an injury-decimated offensive line, was still putting up some big numbers when Dak Prescott was healthy.
No, it’s far more likely that Nolan’s side of the ball is where the frustration and division is occurring. And with the next two weeks featuring games against Washington and Philadelphia, you can’t help but wonder if further failures will force Jerry Jones to want to make a statement.
Firing your brand new defensive coordinator halfway through the season might seem extreme, but what other play would Jones have at this point? Unless he’s content to just ride out the season hiding behind Prescott’s and other injuries, there’s really just a few things Jerry can do if he wants affect change immediately.
There are some experienced coordinators on the staff if Nolan is fired. Defensive Line coach Jim Tomsula has been in the league a long time and was a head coach briefly with San Francisco. George Edwards, currently a senior assistant on defense, was the Vikings’ DC for the last several seasons.
Edward’ background in the 4-3 scheme, and working under Mike Zimmer, might be attractive to the Cowboys’ executives given the current issues.
It wasn’t long ago that Dallas fired offensive line coach Paul Alexander midway through the 2018 season due to clear schematic conflict with his players. It was Paul’s first year with the Cowboys but they clearly saw it wasn’t the right fit and made the move. The results were seemingly positive, though trading for Amari Cooper also helped the offense to click better overall.
If the Cowboys can’t come away with at least one win in these next two division games, they will be 2-6 and then face a tough Pittsburgh Steelers team in Week 9. They would likely going into their bye week at 2-7.
Of course, we don’t know how the Joneses or McCarthy feel about Mike Nolan right now. Perhaps they blame the players more than the coach, which means the big moves will have to wait until the next offseason.
But this defense still has talent. DeMarcus Lawrence, Aldon Smith, Jaylon Smith, now Leighton Vander Esch returning from injury; these are players that most any coach should be able to work with. Even with the weaknesses right now in the secondary, it shouldn’t be as easy as other teams are making it look.
Jerry Jones has shown he can be patient. But unlike Jason Garrett, Mike Nolan isn’t one of his guys. He’s a McCarthy guy, and perhaps Jerry’s willingness to bow to McCarthy’s wishes isn’t what it was back in January.
Most of all, Jerry hates being embarrassed. And as rough as things have been at times for the Cowboys in modern history, Monday night’s romping by the Arizona Cardinals was probably one of the most embarrassing displays this franchise has had in some time.
Losing either of these next two games against our weak division rivals, and especially both of them, would be a bitter pill for the Cowboys owner. One of the saving graces for everyone this year has been Dallas’ ability to compete in the league’s worst division. If that gets shattered over the next two weeks, then Jerry may not be able to sit still any longer.
Mike Nolan feels like the fall guy in that scenario. If nothing else it may be a way to appease players and get through the season while also assessing George Edwards or some other candidate to take over for 2021.
It would be swift end to Nolan’s time in Dallas. But there are many who feel he was the wrong hire to begin with, and so far nothing about this season has disproven that notion.