As the Dallas Cowboys limp to the end of this dismal NFL season, they have a huge list of things that must be fixed in 2021. Their defense, particularly against the run, has been absolutely terrible. Fingers are being pointed at defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. That is certainly understandable. His unit has often looked baffled, as if they do not know what they need to do. While Jerry and Stephen Jones have continued to affirm that Mike McCarthy will be back for another try, they have conspicuously not offered the same assurances about Nolan. As the team’s defense threatens to set a new bar for ineptitude, it is widely assumed that his tenure is accurately described by a classic Roy Orbison song.
However, we have been fooled before. Could there be a chance that Nolan could, over the final three games, build a sufficient case to also come back to see what he can do with a full offseason to properly install his defense? Our Tom Ryle and David Howman have differing takes on that.
Tom: Seriously, thirteen games is plenty of data to make a properly informed decision. That is more than enough time for Nolan to have gotten things working, no matter how big the changes were that he was trying to implement. The Cowboys have allowed the most points in the league, and the most yards rushing. Those are just killers. If you can’t stop the run, the other team is controlling the game. It is supposed to be basic to any NFL defense, yet it completely eludes Dallas. I just don’t see how they can show enough the rest of the way, especially given that they don’t exactly have to face a trio of heavyweights to finish out the year.
David: I think the terrible run defense is a little blown out of proportion. Dallas can’t defend the run at all, sure, but they’re also being put in a difficult position by their offense, which has just two 30+ point games since Dak Prescott got hurt; by the way, those two games have also been their only two victories since losing their franchise quarterback. The combination of giving up points early on and not being able to score themselves has allowed opponents to control the clock, which is why no other team has been run at more than this Dallas defense.
A big reason for the Cowboys’ poor start on defense was the challenge of a pretty radical scheme change in an offseason that ended up being rendered nearly nonexistent. And the reality is they have gotten better as the season has progressed, though not by much. But they’ve also suffered a lot of injuries. The Cowboys offense is continually given a pass (and rightfully so) for having lost so many key players to injury, but here are the numbers: on offense, they’ve had 23 different players either start or contribute a significant amount of snaps; on defense, they’ve had 27 players start or play a lot, including this past week when Rashard Robinson and Saivion Smith both started at outside corner. Those guys weren’t even on the active roster in Week 1!
Tom: Both the names you mentioned are in the secondary, which has much less to do with stopping the run. The main problem there has been the defensive tackle and linebacker play. Nolan is supposed to be good with linebackers, and we certainly haven’t seen that. Jim Tomsula may be on the chopping block as well with how poorly the interior of his line has done, as well as not necessarily getting the most out of the pass rush.
Still, it all is Nolan’s bailiwick, and no matter how well they do the rest of the way, the evidence just seems overwhelming that he is not the defensive coordinator they are looking for. Admittedly, slowing down the San Francisco 49ers’ run game would be a good sign for the defense. I just don’t think that is going to happen, and if they put up a bunch of yard on the ground, you can really put a fork in Nolan’s tenure.
David: You’re right that the main problem is the defensive tackle and linebacker play, but that’s more of an indictment of those players than anything. Dontari Poe being a free agent bust was a surprise to us all, and the injuries to both Gerald McCoy and Trysten Hill were serious blows to any hopes of interior pass rushing. That’s led the Cowboys to rely on a rookie and a guy they almost didn’t bring back in the offseason, in addition to a couple backups whose names we didn’t know until Dallas signed them. There’s a clear lack of experienced talent at that spot.
Same goes for the linebackers, where both Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch have rapidly declined in ability. It’s a trend that started last year for both of them and has been accelerated/exposed this year by the poor defensive tackle play, but I can’t fault Nolan for inheriting two average-at-best linebackers. The secondary has actually been solid for Dallas - they’ve allowed the sixth-least passing yards and are tied with the Ravens in terms of completion rate allowed - despite a lack of talent there. Nolan’s ability to make due with little talent there should speak to his talent as a coordinator; but he shouldn’t be expected to create something out of nothing at every position on this unit.
Ultimately, the Cowboys lack talent at every level defensively. They have good edge rushers and a couple promising young defensive backs, but that’s really it. Mike McCarthy likely knows this, and a full film review with his bosses will give him ample time to point that out. In other words, I see McCarthy convincing Jerry and Stephen that their defensive woes are player-based and not coaching-based, and if he’s able to do that then I see no reason why Nolan would be given a pink slip.
Tom: I think he would be talking to a wall there, because I strongly suspect their minds are made up. The low passing yards allowed is no real defense for Nolan, because when teams are averaging over 162 yards on the ground, they don’t have to pass to win. Shaking up the defensive staff would at least send a message that there is some accountability. I also have a feeling that the defensive misfires are going to be with us all the way to the end, so this just seems like a foregone conclusion.