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The Cowboys need to make big changes on defense, but Mike Nolan isn’t one of them

The embattled Cowboys defensive coordinator deserves another year.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys Training Camp Handout Photo-USA TODAY Sports

It’s safe to say that the Cowboys defense has been abysmal in 2020, and naturally that has brought a lot of attention to defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. Many have been calling for Nolan to go for a while now, and on Sunday Ian Rapoport indicated that while Mike McCarthy is in no danger of losing his job, the same can’t be said for Nolan:

However, another report suggested that a decision on Nolan has not been made yet, and that even if he isn’t the coordinator next year, it may not mean a complete ousting from the organization.

Sources tell CBS Sports the Cowboys are considering being one-and-done with Nolan, but also add it doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be outright fired when the offseason arrives.

It’s possible he could be moved to another role within the organization, but one that takes his hands off of the defensive wheel and allows for someone else to steer.

This may be an unpopular opinion, but Nolan deserves a second chance in 2021. That may seem incomprehensible to some given how poorly this defense has played at times, but Nolan’s defense also hasn’t thrown in the towel completely. Keep in mind, this defense just limited their opponent to 309 total yards and one score.

Sure, it was against the Bengals, but if this defense was truly the worst in NFL history they would’ve been gashed by even the Bengals. But they weren’t. Not only were they not gashed by the Bengals, but they continued their hot streak of takeaways, making it now 11 takeaways in their previous six games. For comparison’s sake, this defense had a total of 17 takeaways all of last year. In other words, things are starting to slowly come together for Nolan’s group.

But first, it’s necessary to correct the record about Nolan’s résumé. Since 2000, Nolan has spent 10 seasons as a defensive coordinator prior to his days in Dallas, running defenses for the Jets, Ravens, Broncos, Dolphins, and Falcons during that time.

In each of those 10 seasons, Nolan’s defenses have only ever finished last in total yards allowed once; he has never had a defense finish last in points allowed or DVOA. On the contrary, Nolan’s defenses have finished in the top ten in scoring four different times, finished in the top ten in yards allowed five different times, and have finished in the top ten in DVOA six different times.

Looking at those four years his defenses weren’t in the top ten in DVOA - by far the most sophisticated metric for judging total defensive performance - there were his two seasons with the Dolphins where they ranked 12th and 13th, respectively, and his final two years with the Falcons, where they ranked 26th and 31st, respectively. So while those final two years in Atlanta were especially horrendous, they’re a clear statistical outlier here; even a casual look at the Falcons defensive roster those two seasons explains that outlier pretty quickly. A look at how Nolan’s defenses stack up in terms of EPA/play paints a very similar picture:

So here we have Nolan, a veteran defensive coordinator with a long history of success in multiple places. What’s more likely: that Nolan has suddenly lost his touch and is a terrible coordinator, or that the Cowboys’ defensive roster just isn’t that good?

I’ll place my bets on the latter. And why not? The Cowboys beefed up their interior defensive line this season with Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe, and both turned out to be big busts for very different reasons. The linebacker duo of Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch has continued its downward spiral from last year, due in part to the lack of a reliable presence at defensive tackle. The cornerback room has been decimated by injuries all year, and even Donovan Wilson’s coming out party - which briefly distracted everyone from Xavier Woods’ rapid regression - has been sidelined by an injury the last two weeks.

Pretty much every critic of this Dallas defense agrees that big changes are needed in the offseason. Defensive tackle is once again a need, and depending on what the Cowboys do with Aldon Smith they may need to address the EDGE position. There’s a lot to figure out at linebacker from a financial standpoint. Smith is in the first year of a new contract that isn’t easy to get out of, while LVE is entering the final year of his rookie deal with a pending fifth-year option, and remember that the entire secondary outside of Trevon Diggs is littered with question marks.

As for Nolan himself, he did exactly what he was hired to do. Nolan inherited a defense that was running a scheme so bland and vanilla that even Sam “I’m seeing ghosts” Darnold knew what was coming and turned it into a hybrid defense with multiple different looks and disguised coverages. Of course, nobody knew what was coming when Nolan signed his contract, and installing any scheme, let alone one that requires such a radical change from one to another, would be incredibly difficult in the almost nonexistent offseason that occurred this year. When you combine that with the free agent busts along the defensive line, the sharp regression of the two linebackers, and all the injuries in the secondary, it’s hard to expect any other result than what we’ve gotten.

But let’s go down the rabbit hole and say the Cowboys do fire Nolan, or at the very least demote him and bring in a new coordinator. The Cowboys are then stuck with the fact that any change at the coordinator position means another scheme change of some sort, even if it’s as minimal as new language or play-calling preferences. And with the way things have been going with regards to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s not looking likely that Dallas will be getting back to a normal offseason schedule. That means their new coordinator will have to teach his scheme, install it, and have players adjust to the changes in yet another disrupted offseason, just as Nolan did this past year, while also very likely bringing a lot of new players into this unit either through free agency or the draft.

In other words, firing Nolan puts the Cowboys back at square one, just with a different name on the door to the defensive coordinator’s office. The hope here would be that Nolan really is just an exceptionally poor teacher, which also necessitates that every other group of players he’s worked with in the past, sans Atlanta, were exceptionally brilliant independent learners, and that Dallas can identify someone who can easily teach new concepts to these defenders in (likely) the same less-than-ideal conditions.

Or they could hang on to Nolan for another year and allow the mainstays like DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory, Neville Gallimore, Vander Esch, Diggs, and Wilson to have gained a full year of experience in this scheme, making them more prepared for the 2021 season. The hope here is that those players make it easier for new additions to quickly learn the defense and put forth a better product overall, whereas the alternative rests on the hope that a new coach can easily teach a new system to the entire defense.

And maybe the Cowboys hold onto Nolan and make significant upgrades to their personnel and still field a terrible defense. Then they can fire Nolan and know for a certainty that he was the problem. But right now, it’s almost impossible to truly judge a coach on his abilities given all of the adversity this year has brought, especially in Dallas. Whether you like Nolan or not, the potential positives of keeping him greatly outweigh the potential negatives.