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Eight candidates to replace Mike Nolan as Cowboys defensive coordinator

There are plenty of options to choose from for the Cowboys.

Arizona Cardinals v Houston Texans Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

The Cowboys executed a strategic Friday afternoon news dump with their announcement that defensive coordinator Mike Nolan was being let go after just one year with the team. Now, the Cowboys are looking for their third defensive coordinator in as many years, although it’s unclear what exactly they’re looking for.

Nolan was hired specifically to implement a multiple approach on defense after widespread complaints that the defense under Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard had become far too bland and predictable. Nolan implemented some 3-4 concepts - such as utilizing bigger defensive tackles and having his edge rushers occasionally align in a two-point stance - all while sticking to the general 4-3 base the roster was built for.

So now the Cowboys are in a strange spot where they could potentially remain with a traditional 4-3 defense - the subsequent firing of defensive line coach Jim Tomsula seems to indicate that - or continue with their move to a hybrid look, or even adopt a full 3-4 transition. It’s not overly apparent which approach Dallas will take, but there are plenty of candidates out there for either. Here are eight potential candidates, four who come from the 4-3 school and four who come from the 3-4 style.

If the Cowboys stick with the 4-3

George Edwards, Cowboys senior defensive assistant

This is probably the most likely option, considering George Edwards is already on the Cowboys staff. As a senior defensive assistant, Edwards assisted with the linebackers and worked with Nolan on sub packages. His most noticeable contribution this season was the implementation of the split mug front, which Dallas frequently deployed on third and long situations.

Edwards came over to Dallas after six seasons as the Vikings defensive coordinator. While head coach Mike Zimmer called the defensive plays, Edwards was a crucial part of devising and installing weekly game plans for Minnesota during that time. It’s worth noting that Minnesota’s defense - which ranked in the top ten in defensive DVOA in Edwards’ last four years there - regressed sharply in 2020, falling all the way down to 18th in DVOA.

There was even one game in which Edwards ended up calling defensive plays for the Vikings after Zimmer was absent due to eye surgery. Coincidentally, that game was against the Cowboys in 2016, and they caught the Cowboys in the midst of a big winning streak led by their rookie duo of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. While the Cowboys would win that game by a narrow 17-15 score, Edwards’ defense became the first such defense to hold the Cowboys under 300 total yards that season.

Edwards has also served as a defensive coordinator for the Washington Football Team and Buffalo Bills in the past. From 1998 to 2001, Edwards also coached linebackers for the Cowboys, making his hiring this past offseason a homecoming of sorts. Now he could be the defensive coordinator, which would mean a move towards the kind of defense Zimmer runs in Minnesota. In other words, a lot of press man coverage with two-high safety looks and not much blitzing.

The fact that Edwards is already on the staff and has familiarity with these players and their tendencies gives him an obvious edge. However, Nolan’s firing comes after a particularly dreadful performance from their defense all season, so Edwards being part of that staff could potentially hurt him as well.

Steve Wilks, former Panthers and Browns defensive coordinator

If the Cowboys are looking to continue in the vein of their aggressive defense but staying with a traditional 4-3 look, Steve Wilks would be an easy choice. He’s long been a disciple of Ron Rivera, whose powerful defense just carried the Washington Football Team to a division title and spanked the Cowboys in both of their matchups.

Wilks coached defensive backs under Rivera for the Bears, Chargers, and Panthers before being promoted to defensive coordinator for the 2017 season. He replaced Sean McDermott, who had just been hired as the Bills head coach, and was tasked with keeping the Panthers’ stout defenses near the top of the league. Wilks immediately started dialing up more blitzes for Carolina, and actually improved the team’s defensive DVOA from 10th to eighth in his sole year as the coordinator.

That’s because Wilks was hired as the Cardinals head coach the very next year. While Arizona finished 3-13 that year, resulting in Wilks being fired after just one year on the job, his defense was still productive, ranking 12th in DVOA and, notably, sixth in pass defense DVOA; that was even after Wilks switched the defense from a 3-4 to a 4-3. Wilks then joined the Cleveland Browns under rookie head coach Freddie Kitchens, who also got fired after one season. Wilks’ defense also endured injuries to key starters in the secondary, as well as the indefinite suspension of star edge rusher Myles Garrett. Still, Wilks was nearly retained by new Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski.

When Stefanski opted to bring in someone new, Wilks decided to take a year off from football after so much turmoil in his life. But now, he’s ready to get back into coaching at the perfect time. He’s aggressive - his defenses have finished in the top five in blitz rate every season - and comes with a background specialty in pass defense, which is so meaningful in today’s pass happy league.

The biggest downside for Wilks? He employs a ton of zone coverage, almost exclusively so, and the Cowboys may not want to add him into the mix a year after building their secondary, most notably Trevon Diggs, around playing tight press man coverage. But Wilks has the proven track record and is known for his strong command of a locker room, one of the reasons the Rams nearly hired him instead of Sean McVay.

Teryl Austin, Steelers senior defensive assistant

The Pittsburgh Steelers were the last team to lose their first game in 2020, doing so largely on the strength of their defense. Naturally, Steelers senior defensive assistant Teryl Austin will become a name under consideration for some defensive coordinator openings.

Austin also has some valuable experience attached to his name, which helps. He was Jim Caldwell’s defensive coordinator for the Lions from 2014 to 2017. During that time, Detroit’s defense helped elevate the Lions into a better team, making the playoffs twice. Caldwell was fired after going 9-7 and missing the playoffs in 2017, and new head coach Matt Patricia didn’t retain Austin. Patricia was fired during the 2020 season with a career 13-29-1 record, in addition to a defense that consistently ranked near the bottom in every category.

Austin found work as the Bengals defensive coordinator in 2018, but it didn’t work out at all. Austin was fired during the year, as head coach Marvin Lewis took over play-calling duties before parting ways with the franchise. That’s when Austin had his homecoming in the form of joining the Steelers as a senior defensive assistant, primarily working with defensive backs. And that may be what gets McCarthy’s attention. Like the Cowboys head coach, Austin is both a Pittsburgh native and started his coaching career with the Pitt Panthers. While the two never overlapped, there is a strong community within the Pitt program. McCarthy is also said to pride himself on his “Pittsburgh culture,” so Austin’s shared heritage could be a conversation starter.

Beyond that, though, Austin has a strong track record. His Lions defenses remained productive even as top tier talent, such as Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, left the building. It was enough to earn Austin several head coaching interviews during his time there, but his work in Pittsburgh is equally impressive.

In 2019, Austin played a part in midseason trade acquisition Minkah Fitzpatrick adjusting immediately to his new team and becoming a dangerous ballhawk. This season, Austin also helped the development of younger players like Terrell Edmunds, giving the Steelers a secondary that matched their terrifying pass rush. Now, he could be ready to get back to running his own defense.

Dan Quinn, former Falcons head coach

Dan Quinn may be the most widely known coach on this list, largely because of his recently-ended tenure as the Falcons head coach. Quinn was fired after an 0-5 start to the season, which came after a 2019 season in which his Falcons team limped out to a 1-7 start before finishing 7-9. Prior to that, though, Quinn had some success, even taking his team to the Super Bowl before famously blowing a 28-3 halftime lead to the Patriots.

Before being hired to Atlanta, Quinn was the Seahawks defensive coordinator. While he was not one of the founding members of the Legion of Boom defense, Quinn was nonetheless an instrumental part of their ascent to the legendary status that defense earned. Quinn was Seattle’s defensive coordinator the year they won the Super Bowl, something his predecessors and successors have not achieved.

To that end, a move to bring Quinn into the fold in Dallas would be a tacit admission of a mistake in letting go of Kris Richard, since their schemes are essentially identical. That means a lot of Cover 3 coverages, not much blitzing, and mostly one-gap penetration techniques in the trenches. In other words, going right back to what the Cowboys did before they fired Jason Garrett.

Quinn has already been connected to the Cowboys job, which is no surprise given his Super Bowl acumen and previous head coaching experience. Quinn is likely to be in high demand among any team that has a vacancy at their defensive coordinator position, especially since he has drawn universal praise from his former players for his ability to foster a healthy, competitive culture.

If the Cowboys switch to more of a 3-4 look

Dom Capers, Vikings senior defensive assistant

A big reason for Nolan’s hiring was his previous relationship with McCarthy. Nolan hired McCarthy as his offensive coordinator when the former was the head coach of the 49ers. so if McCarthy looks to hire someone along those same lines he’ll end up at least considering Dom Capers.

Capers, who started his coaching career in 1972, has decades of experience. He’s been a defensive coordinator for four different NFL teams and was also the first-ever head coach for both the Panthers and Texans when those two franchises first began. He went 48-80 between both teams with just one winning season, though Capers had much more success as a defensive coordinator.

His most notable stint as coordinator was, of course, with the Packers under McCarthy. After McCarthy’s third year as the Packers head coach, during which he had a record of 27-21, the Packers decided to switch to a 3-4 defense and brought in Capers. The defense saw an immediate increase in production, and the Packers ended up making the playoffs in each of the next eight seasons, including a Super Bowl win.

Capers’ defenses declined over time, though, and he was eventually fired after the 2017 season. After spending the 2018 season out of football, Capers joined the Jacksonville Jaguars as a senior defensive assistant before taking the same role in Minnesota this past year. That’s notable because both teams run a strict 4-3 defense, while Capers has always been a staunch 3-4 kind of guy.

Any interest in Capers will start and end with his time with McCarthy in Green Bay, and his experience with two 4-3 schemes the last two years might make him a little more appealing. However, Capers will turn 71 by the time the regular season begins, so the long term outlook for him isn’t exactly great. Still, he might be an option.

James Bettcher, former Cardinals and Giants defensive coordinator

James Bettcher is in the same boat as Steve Wilks after spending the 2020 season away from football. Bettcher was the defensive coordinator for the Giants in both 2018 and 2019, but was not retained by Joe Judge and opted for a year off from football. While his defenses never put it together in New York, that was largely due to the lack of defensive talent available to him.

One can say that because Bettcher put together some truly elite defenses with the Cardinals, where he called plays from 2015 to 2017. In his three seasons as the Cardinals defensive coordinator, having taken over Todd Bowles, Bettcher’s defenses ranked in the top three in DVOA every single year.

Another way that Bettcher is similar to Wilks is in his shared love of the blitz. His defenses are usually right next to Wilks’ defenses at the top of each year’s blitz rate. He was unable to truly unleash his exotic blitzes in New York, again due to the below-average talent level, but Bettcher’s Cardinals frequently threw a bunch of unique looks at opposing quarterbacks. It worked too, as his defenses were consistently sacking the quarterback, and even led the NFL in total sacks in 2016.

Not surprisingly, Bettcher’s success in Arizona earned him several head coaching interviews before his time was up. And when Bruce Arians retired as the Cardinals head coach following the 2017 season, Bettcher was the man Arians suggested replace him; the job, of course, went to Wilks instead. But during Bettcher’s head coach interest, he was compared to the defensive version of Sean McVay.

Like Teryl Austin, a failed stop with a franchise that’s struggled to find any success since has tarnished Bettcher’s reputation a bit. That could work to the Cowboys’ favor if they seek to bring him in as their newest defensive coordinator.

Chris Hewitt, Ravens defensive pass game coordinator

Chris Hewitt’s inclusion on this list is due to the same reasoning that Teryl Austin was included. The Ravens, like their divisional foe, boast a really potent defense. Hewitt, who’s coached defensive backs in Baltimore for the past eight seasons before adding passing game coordinator this year, has been a big part of that.

While the Ravens defense is often described as a 3-4, it’s really not. Schematically, this defense is probably exactly what Nolan had envisioned installing in Dallas; after all, Nolan was the Ravens defensive coordinator from 2002 to 2004, and Baltimore has kept the same overall scheme in place ever since. This is to say the Ravens use a bunch of different looks on both their front and back ends, utilizing players that can perform multiple assignments.

Hewitt is a bit of a rising star in the coaching ranks, and was under consideration for the Chiefs defensive coordinator job prior to the 2019 season. Before joining the Ravens, Hewitt held a variety of coaching roles with the Rutgers Scarlet Knights from 2004 to 2011. There, he worked under head coach Greg Schiano, whose program became known for its stellar defenses.

While Hewitt would bring a similar philosophical approach as Nolan, his hiring would indicate that the Cowboys’ internal assessment of Nolan had more to do with his ability to implement the scheme change rather than the scheme change itself. Hewitt, who is only 46 years old, has been lauded by his Ravens players for his ability to relate to them (himself a former player) and easily communicate the scheme.

In Dallas, Hewitt could offer some level of continuity in scheme for a defense that really seemed to be getting it by the end while representing a fresh new voice that can more easily communicate the ideas. Additionally, Hewitt comes from a very successful pipeline: in his nine years with the Ravens, their defense has finished outside the top ten in DVOA just once. Imagine if he could translate that to Dallas.

Larry Foote, Buccaneers linebackers coach

This one might be a bit premature, given that Larry Foote has just six years of coaching experience, but that wasn’t a problem for Kellen Moore when he took over the Cowboys offense in 2019. Foote is most famous for his playing career, primarily his two stints with the Steelers that totaled 11 seasons. He retired with 804 career tackles, 25 sacks, 10 forced fumbles, eight fumble recoveries, and four interceptions as an off-ball linebacker.

Foote started his coaching career in 2015 as a linebackers coach for the Cardinals under Bruce Arians, who had been the Steelers offensive coordinator when Foote played there. Foote replaced the aforementioned James Bettcher, who was promoted to defensive coordinator. When Arians retired and the aforementioned Steve Wilks took over, Foote was retained even after the scheme change. When Wilks was fired, Foote was hired in Tampa Bay, reuniting with the unretired Arians, where he now coaches the linebackers under Todd Bowles.

Bowles runs a more traditional 3-4 approach than Bettcher, although his background as a disciple of Bill Parcells has led him to being very flexible when it comes to scheme. Foote, however, played most of his career under Dick LeBeau, the legendary defensive coordinator known for his innovation of the 3-4 zone blitz scheme.

Given how green a coach Foote is right now, it’s unclear exactly how he’d operate as a coordinator, or even if he’s ready for the promotion. What is known is that Foote is well-respected in the locker room, and he’s got a successful track record. In Tampa Bay, specifically, Foote’s linebackers have been a huge part of the Buccaneers’ rapid defensive turnaround. In 2018, the Bucs defense ranked dead last in DVOA. In the two years since Foote and Bowles have been there, the defense has finished sixth and fifth in DVOA, respectively.

Veteran linebacker Lavonte David and 2019 rookie linebacker Devin White were the team’s top two tacklers each season; both were named to the Second-Team All Pro list this year. Outside linebacker Shaq Barrett, who the Buccaneers acquired in 2019, led the NFL in sacks last year and was named to the Pro Bowl and All Pro list. Barrett’s counterpart, Jason Pierre-Paul, endured a switch from a traditional 4-3 defensive end to a more stand-up role, and Foote’s guidance helped JPP record 8.5 sacks last year and 9.5 this year. This season he made his first Pro Bowl since his glory days with the Giants.

Long story short, Foote has shown he knows how to develop his players whether they are veterans or rookies. He’s a very young coach at age 40, but his background as both a player and coach suggests Foote could become a very successful defensive coordinator at some point. Perhaps the Cowboys could gamble on that upside now, and hope to reap the benefits down the road.