This isn't what the Dallas Cowboys signed up for in 2020. Granted, they join the other 31 NFL clubs in having had their offseason deleted because of the COVID-19 pandemic but, unlike most other teams, they were coming off of a winter that saw them make sweeping changes to the coaching staff that required in-person practices to hit the ground running in September. Yet, while all of that can be filed in the "Reasons" section as opposed to the one labeled "Excuses," the team is now passed the threshold into the latter when attempting to justify the defensive product being put on the field weekly, and it now has the seat beneath Mike Nolan hot enough to fry fish.
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. If he remains with the Cowboys in any capacity, it'll likely be due to his relationship with head coach Mike McCarthy -- one that began when McCarthy was the offensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers in 2005, where Nolan was head coach at the time. This creates a dynamic in Dallas similar to that of Jason Garrett and former offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, and it makes for an intriguing decision to come from McCarthy and the Cowboys, in that it's a first test of loyalty to a former mentor or the success of the team.
Garrett roundly failed that test with Linehan and it ultimately helped fuel his demise with the Cowboys. McCarthy must himself now decide if he's willing to give Nolan a mulligan in 2021 and, if so, he'll have to convince owner Jerry Jones as to why, seeing as Jones is now hinting strongly at consideration for change at the position -- indirectly confirming what sources are telling CBS Sports. Days after watching his Cowboys get thumped by the Baltimore Ravens, and exuding a clear lack of effort on defense in the second half that led to , Jones didn't exactly mince words.
"I will say this: we've got, like anybody, you got a lot of do-overs," he told 105.3FM the Fan. "I'd like to start again on how we approached our defense this year. I'd like to start that over again. I'm sure everybody else would, too."
This could be interpreted in a couple of ways, with Jones also referring to the effort he saw to start out the season that's now long waned and, at one point, included anonymous players calling out the defensive coaches -- leading to a very public rift in the locker room that was only eventually smoothed over with a bump in overall effort and an impressive win on the road against the Minnesota Vikings. But after seeing the Ravens rack up 294 rushing yards and sitting at 3-9 with literally the worst defense in the history of the franchise, there's only so much that can be attributed to the handicaps created by the pandemic.
Jones appears to be accepting the reality he might've made a mistake on Nolan, and if he was refusing to do so before, seeing thematchup surely drove home just how bottom of the barrel his product is, and it's got his attention -- even if he tries to spin it differently in the public realm.
So when it comes to the monumental defensive collapse that also saw the team trade away a coveted free agent signing in Everson Griffen -- after the four-time Pro Bowl pass rusher became a shell of himself under Nolan's scheme -- Jones is sifting through accountability behind the scenes and weighing who should stick around in 2021. And while McCarthy is completely safe, sources have affirmed to CBS Sports for weeks now, Nolan is far from it. Jones is willing to take blame as general manager, yes, but the fact he is gives indication he's potentially ramping up to fix a mistake or two.
"Every bit of [the struggles go to coaching decisions] -- every bit of it," he said. "And then right past that go right to your general manager. Right past that -- go to your general manager because coming through the door, the GM was eye to eye hiring the head coach, talking about how we were going to approach when he walks through the door and where he was going to go from there. That's what you do. That obviously didn't work for us this year.
"This isn't like we've had a coach that has been there 10 years. [Garrett] just left. So, we were just coming through the door here and just sitting down talking about how you're going to approach things like that -- not just draft or drafting a player, but things like how we were going to approach. We spent a lot of time."
With the possibility of landing a top-5 pick that could see them trade down and get a slew of picks to truly throw at overhauling the defense for 2021, Jones' silver lining is one that harkens back to yesteryear, when the Cowboys rebuilt their ailing defense.
"Several years ago, maybe 10, 11 years ago, we went from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense," he said, referencing the team's stint with Bill Parcells. "But when we did it, there was a lot of reluctance on making that move by our coach. His name was Bill Parcells. And, so, he had a tough time buying into drafting DeMarcus Ware. He wanted to draft [Marcus] Spears because Spears fit both ways -- 4-3 or a 3-4.
"DeMarcus Ware was principally going to the [3-4]. All we did was turn around and have the greatest draft we probably ever had on defense and drafted Spears, Ware, [Jay] Ratliff and [Chris] Canty. And we were able to make the move right then and there. Had we not drafted those guys, that might have been a tough move and probably we wouldn't have gone into it as completely. That's speculation. But there's your case.
"You got to think about the personnel when you talk about changing your scheme."
Nolan might hear those comments and think himself safe, but not so fast.
"If you could have a draft like that, you could have some successful defense," said Jones. "Any coach you want to put in there."
It's also key to note the Cowboys have former Vikings defensive coordinator George Edwards on staff, a much more recently successful DC in the NFL who helped turn the Minnesota defense into a powerhouse. Don't rule him out as an option to move to coordinator in 2021, especially when doing a deep dive into what he brings to the table.
Here's a breakdown of the Vikings defense annual points per game average under Edwards:
|YEAR||POINTS PER GAME (AVERAGE)||NFL RANKING|
Again, do not rule Edwards out as an option -- one that would also spare the Cowboys an external interview process. By the way, Edwards was also the linebackers coach for the Cowboys from 1998-2001, helping to mold players like Dexter Coakley, so there's also familiarity between he and the Joneses that could go a long way in consideration of shuffling pieces around.
Nolan, 61, was brought on as Cowboys defensive coordinator this offseason at the behest of Mike McCarthy, and while offensive coordinator Kellen Moore has seen his unit ravaged by major and season-ending injuries that include two-time Pro Bowl quarterback Dak Prescott, starting linemen Tyron Smith, La'El Collins, Zack Martin and starting tight end Blake Jarwin, Nolan didn't have such issues for much of the season. The regression on star linebackers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch are taking center stage, and the pass rush and run defense have struggled nearly as much as the secondary -- making for a trifecta of poor play.
That said, while execution issues can be tied to a derailed offseason, lack of effort on the field can not. As noted by CBS Sports in early October, things could get substantially worse for the Cowboys defense if players failed to finally buy in, and that's now materialized in Dallas. McCarthy stood firm by Nolan at that point in the season, despite the obvious disconnect between players and someone who hasn't coordinated a defense since 2014. In 2021, much like Garrett in recent seasons, McCarthy will have to decide what's most important: giving a longtime friend another shot at the expense of his own clout within the organization, or making a move that's best for the team in the immediate future.
Then again, a disappointed and embarrassed Jones might make the decision for him.