When assigning blame for the Cowboys 2019 season that came up far short of expectations, most observers would not start with the offense. Sure, they had their issues like starting games slow and coming up short in a few big games like the second contest against the Eagles, but overall they were productive. They led the league in yards per game, were sixth in points per game, were second in passing yards per game, and did well in many advanced statistical categories. There is room for improvement, especially in starting faster and matching points to yards gained, but it was a solid effort overall.
As such, new coach Mike McCarthy decided to keep some continuity there by retaining offensive coordinator Kellen Moore and allowing him to continue calling the plays. They are keeping pretty much the same terminology on offense and they moved Doug Nussmeier over to quarterbacks coach providing Dak Prescott with someone he has some familiarity with. McCarthy will make some changes and additions given his extensive background in the West Coast offense, but the offense should look familiar in 2020.
The same can not be said about the other two phases of the game for Dallas. The defense and special teams are about to undergo transformations. Mike Nolan takes over a defense that failed in one huge category, turnovers. John Fassel takes over a special teams unit that failed in almost every category. If fortunes are going to be different for Dallas in 2020, these two men will have a lot to do with it.
ESPN tried to pin down exactly, and succinctly, what these changes could mean. First up, Mike Nolan.
The pass rush will be most affected by Nolan because ... : takeaways matter most in the NFL. When you don’t have players who have a knack for taking the ball away, you have to create opportunities by attacking quarterbacks. Nolan has shown a willingness to be aggressive and creative in other spots, which has allowed his defenses to take the ball away certainly more than Dallas has in recent years.
Four words that describe Nolan: Scheme-diverse, aggressive, experienced, intense
Turnovers is definitely the buzzword on defense. We’ve heard Nolan, and many of his assistants, talk about turnovers and ballhawks and things like that. The Cowboys will certainly be emphasizing that aspect during practices and such, but the other buzzwords like scheme-divers and aggressive might be the keys.
The Cowboys defense under Rod Marinelli was not scheme-diverse, instead it was pretty familiar and simple. That should change as our own David Howman has pointed out in some excellent breakdowns of Mike Nolan’s defensive history. The major point is that Nolan has worked with 4-3, 3-4 and hybrid fronts and is very adept at mixing things up.
Nolan has a history of utilizing both types of defenses, as well as a varied hybrid front. And he’s found success with all three types as well. Nolan ran strict 3-4 defenses in his first two coordinator jobs with the Giants and Redskins, but operated more of a hybrid front in his lone season under the 2000 Jets, where Bill Parcells oversaw things as the general manager. In Baltimore he continued their 3-4 hybrid defensive success while helping newly drafted Terrell Suggs blossom into a fearsome edge rusher.
His ability to use personnel in a way that doesn’t limit them to a specific defense, but utilizes their talents in schemes modified to fit their abilities, is a defining characteristic.
While in San Francisco, Nolan ran a 3-4 but as this image shows, it functioned nearly the same as a 4-3. It includes a nose tackle in a 1-technique and a lineman in a 3-technique (though it’s labeled as a defensive end here). Another lineman is sitting in a 4-technique, meaning he’s lined up directly over the right tackle. Nolan then has his two outside linebackers, named SAM and WILL, on the edges, with inside linebackers in 20 alignment, or off the ball in the box.
For more on how Nolan might use current Cowboys personnel, go here.
As for John Fassel, ESPN had this to say.
This special teams will be most affected by Fassel because ... : the Cowboys were among the lowest ranked in several special-teams units in 2020. By hiring Fassel, the Cowboys made a commitment to special teams, but now they have to carry it through with how they formulate the roster and continue to not make the group an afterthought.
Four words that describe Fassel: Effective, risk-taker, teacher, exuberant
Fassel is widely considered among the best special teams coordinators in the game. As noted, he is a risk-taker, but he also knows that chemistry and fundamentals are the foundation of special teams.
Recently, he spoke about the importance special teams brings to a team’s success. Bones, as he is known, is placing an emphasis on taking away some of the chaos that has accompanied this unit in recent years. With a more simple approach and dialing in on the fundamentals, he hopes to help his guys become more comfortable with their assignments. Having a squad that possesses better chemistry, where every player has a real sense of purpose, is very important to him.
He speaks often about making players feel that special teams are every bit as important as offense and defense. He tries to create a sense of pride in the unit, teaches them the fundamentals, and then tries to figure out how the team can attack on special teams.
One other thing Fassel discussed is his penchant for running fakes and being aggressive on special teams. He said that much of that has to do with the players he’s had, like Shane Lechler in Oakland who was a college quarterback early on in his career, and Johnny Hekker in St. Louis who was a high-school quarterback. He notes that he spent time talking with them about how they can attack a punt return team like an offenses would. The final element is a head coach who will listen and as long as it is sound, give it a shot in the game.
Chris Jones has been a punter that you can certainly do some fakes with, but his problem is how poorly he kicked last year. It will be interesting to see if Fassel wants to bring Jones back, or go with someone new. Whatever he does, it looks like special teams could be a pretty aggressive unit.
Fassel has a lot of work to do in overhauling the unit, but his experience bodes well for the future.
The Cowboys offense should look very similar in 2020, but the defense and special teams should not. They will be, if history is any guide, more varied on defense with a push to create turnovers, and fundamentally more sound on special teams with an aggressive streak.