The loss to the Cleveland Browns left fans of the Dallas Cowboys in a state of dismay that in many cases moved on to anger and cries for action. Specifically, there were many who felt that the defensive coaching staff needed to be replaced, at least in part. The main target of their ire was defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. After all, the offense put up a remarkable 566 yards and 38 points. Yet it was all for naught as the defense let the Browns score 49, including a back-breaking 50-yard running play by Odell Beckham Jr. that saw him forced back by Aldon Smith, only for OBJ to evade and weave his way through a cluster of Dallas defenders on his way to the end zone.
Normal logic would dictate that it is too early to be talking about firing any coaches. But this is not normal, as the 1-3 Cowboys keep putting up offensive numbers at a pace that could shatter records only to see the defense shredded. Suddenly the upcoming game with the New York Giants looms far larger than it should. If Dallas somehow manages to let that one slip away, then the cries for some heads to roll will become deafening. And as Bill O’Brien, formerly of the Houston Texans, just found out, it is indeed not too early for frustrated and desperate franchises to start swinging that ax.
Still, taking that approach for the Cowboys smacks of some pretty extreme overreaction. But it may be all about how you look at it, as our Tom Ryle and Terence Watson demonstrate.
Tom: I usually try to be the voice of reason, but this time, I get it. Obviously the team is not going to make a change this week, but right now Nolan is just making the case that he is not the defensive coordinator we’re looking for. The glaring problem is that, rather than finding ways to be better, his defense is sinking deeper and deeper into ineptitude. That performance against the dominant offensive powerhouse of the Browns (sarcasm, if you didn’t realize) was one of the worst defensive outings since I’ve been covering this team - and that spans almost a decade, which includes some epic stinkaroos.
Should a game in week 5 be a make or break point? If this defense lets Jason Garrett pile up yards and points with his 1990s state-of-the-art offense, then yes. That would be a bridge too far. Just cut Nolan loose, have one of the assistants (perhaps Jim Tomsula) fill in, and maybe look for another coordinator to bring in shortly. Just don’t make the mistake of giving someone who is failing miserably at their job a nearly endless series of last chances to right things.
Terence: I agree this is hands down one of the worst Dallas Cowboys defenses I’ve ever seen, but we can’t just go out and get rid of the defensive coordinator after the first quarter of the season. In doing so you’re forcing a defense that is already struggling to forget everything they were trying to learn and start trying to digest a new scheme and coaching style. After this season is over yes, we should look for a new coordinator to lead this defense if there is no improvement.
Until that time, this team is going to have to get it together and get back to the fundamentals. Honestly this isn’t about a lack of effort like head coach Mike McCarthy stated in his press conference this week, it’s more about mental mistakes and lapses. Nolan needs to dumb down his defense so that his players don’t get lost in thoughts on what they need to do on the field and just read and react. Get back to the basics.
Tom: Here’s my problem with not making any kind of move right now. If they haven’t been able to make some effective adjustments and changes by now, you have to question whether Nolan and perhaps some of his assistants really can do that. One thing I have noticed over the years is that a lot of football coaches have a really hard time with accepting that they are wrong. Of course, if you can’t first admit that you have a problem, you are never going to come up with any kind of effective solution.
It is making an inference, of course, but given that the defensive performance seems to be going downhill from game to game, I have to worry that some of the issue derives from the defensive staff doubling down on what they have always done. It is that real apprehension that this bunch is just not ready or willing to take the necessary steps that makes me favor making a big change or two midseason. I never believe in really giving up on things while you are still in it, and as part of the NFC East Dallas clearly has a shot despite the horrible start. Keeping Nolan around if the defense continues to flounder would be a form of tanking. I hate that as much as I do establishing the run and playing to get a manageable third down.
Terence: We also have to take into account the injuries that have hit this defense. Leighton Vander Esch should be manning the middle of this defense and instead Jaylon Smith is and it’s easy to see that this isn’t the best position for him on this defense. Then you have the injuries in the secondary with cornerbacks Anthony Brown and Chidobe Awuzie both out. Teams have been taking advantage is this and picking on Daryl Worley and Jourdan Lewis every chance they get. You also have a banged up DeMarcus Lawrence on the defensive line.
We need to at least give Nolan the chance to get his full complement of players he originally had starting back on the field to see what this defense really looks like. I have a feeling that the secondary play will get better with both Brown and Awuzie back and that the Cowboys inability to stop the run will get better with Vander Esch in at middle linebacker. Now’s not the time to make a coaching change but what this team can do is try bringing in defensive tackles and another experienced safety to help get this defense back on track. There are still a few good free agents out there that could come in and help this defense.
Tom: If you want to make getting a full complement a decision point, then I can give a very specific one: Randy Gregory. Once they get him back, they will have about as much as they are likely to have all season, and from then on it would probably only be worse as the wear and tear of the season inevitably leads to more injuries. That free agent cupboard just strikes me as a bit too bare to really be a factor. The high point of Gregory coming back is the best chance to turn it around. If they are still doing their best wet tissue paper imitation, just forget trying to make things better. Fire Nolan to shake things up, send a message, and also start the process of figuring out who is next.
Of course, that leaves the lingering question of who is your acting defensive coordinator. I don’t know that any of the current assistants have shown they are who you need. I do have one kind of off the wall suggestion, since you want someone with strong knowledge of the roster, a great mind for the game, and a real understanding of what has and hasn’t worked in the past.
They say Sean Lee is like a coach on the field, so let’s see what he does on the sidelines with real authority.
Terence: Thank you for bringing up my last point, who on this staff has the experience to take over if the Cowboys did decide to fire Nolan? Sean Lee’s abilities on the field when healthy are about as good as you can get from any linebacker, but in a coaching role, wouldn’t he already be doing that with Jaylon Smith on the sidelines already? Obviously he isn’t having an effect on Smith’s play on the field so I doubt he would be able to in a defensive coordinator role with the entire defense.
I saw you already reference Jim Tomsula as a possible internal replacement candidate but once again look at the play of the defensive line. If he can’t get his own position group up and ready to play each week how would he be able to do it with the entire defense? The only thing this team can do now is ride out this storm and look to make changes next season. You’ve already lost both starting offensive tackles for the season so I doubt they will be going far this season now anyway.
Tom: I was just throwing Lee out there to make people think, since it is really not feasible. But another, much more realistic name is George Edwards, who has had success in the past as a coordinator. I just think we are very close to a breaking point, and drastic measures are required.