The Cowboys dismissed Mike Nolan on Friday as their defensive coordinator, a long-expected decision following arguably the worst defensive season in the franchise’s 61-year history.
Nolan confirmed the development via text message.
Defensive line coach Jim Tomsula also has been fired, and other changes to the defensive coaching staff are considered likely to come.
The past three defensive coordinators whom coach Mike McCarthy has hired — Dom Capers, Mike Pettine and Nolan — dating back to his time with the Green Bay Packers were all NFL head coaches at one point. Former Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn is one name that bears watching. He has been discussed internally as a possible replacement, sources said. Senior defensive assistant George Edwards is an internal candidate.
McCarthy released a statement, thanking Nolan and Tomsula for their contributions “under difficult circumstances in 2020.”
“These are never easy decisions to make,” McCarthy added, “and we wish them, and their families, the very best in the future.”
A misguided approach doomed Nolan’s one-year tenure.
In January, he inherited a defense that, at times in recent years, drew criticism for being too schematically simplistic and predictable. Nolan turned a Toyota Prius playbook into a Porsche one, introducing volumes of conceptual and technical sophistication.
Maybe the scheme transition would have fared well in other years.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, NFL coaches and players had less offseason instruction time, losing on-field spring workouts before a truncated training camp without a preseason. In this critical area, Nolan and McCarthy failed to adapt, continuing largely full steam ahead.
Not until multiple games into the season, when mental errors and missed assignments accumulated at an alarming rate, did the Cowboys begin scaling back their defense.
Results stabilized around midseason.
Still, Dallas allowed 218 points through its first six games, tied with the 1948 New York Giants for third-worst in NFL history. Only the 1950 Baltimore Colts (235 points) and 1954 Washington Redskins (223) ranked worse. Nolan called the first four games from a stadium booth before relocating to the sideline.
The Cowboys finished 2020 having allowed a franchise-record 473 points. It is the decision-makers’ belief that whatever personnel shortcomings they had on defense — and in fairness to Nolan, there were plenty — weren’t to a historical scale, given many of these players were part of more successful defenses in the past.
Nolan’s group underperformed.
McCarthy was not going anywhere, one season into a five-year contract.
So for weeks, short of a shocking turnaround, it appeared inevitable Nolan and a number of other defensive assistants would shoulder the fallout. Multiple coaches whom McCarthy hired in January have underwhelmed at The Star and are considered unlikely to be retained.
The Cowboys’ season concluded last Sunday with the defense allowing three first-half touchdowns to the New York Giants in a 23-19 loss.
“I think it was evident it was hard to implement a new system and not be able to practice it,” said linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, who fractured his collarbone in the season opener. “I think we finally were just starting to get the hang of it at the end of the season, and I think it showed really when we were starting to understand things a lot better, it was showing up on film. But it was hard not having an offseason and not being able to actually be out on the field and going through that stuff.”
Improving the run defense will be a focus this offseason.
Dallas allowed an average of 164.8 rushing yards per game, second-worst in franchise history behind only the inaugural 1960 defense (186.8 yards).
In 2020, there were three instances against the Cleveland Browns, Arizona Cardinals and Baltimore Ravens in which the Cowboys allowed at least 260 rushing yards and at least 7 yards per carry in the same game. By comparison, in the franchise’s first 60 years, there were only four such instances, and those came in 1960, 1961, 1963 and 2008.
The Cowboys became the first team since the 1973 New England Patriots to allow three of those efficient, high-yardage rushing performances in the same season.
Nolan named McCarthy his offensive coordinator in 2005 during his first year as the San Francisco 49ers’ coach. The arrangement lasted one season before McCarthy departed to guide the Packers. In 2020, McCarthy returned the gesture and made Nolan his defensive coordinator.
The arrangement lasted one season.