Cowboys' Mike Nolan demands takeaways, and says scheme isn't important: 'Get your best 11 on the field.'

Every defense in the NFL wants to take the ball away from the opposing offense, but some are much better at it than others. The Dallas Cowboys were routinely not found in that revered group of ballhawks during the Jason Garrett regime, but Mike McCarthy is the new sheriff in town and his defensive deputy, Mike Nolan, has no tolerance for failing in that category. McCarthy wooed Nolan away from the New Orleans Saints for several reasons and that's certainly one of them, so expect him to hammer that point home early and often -- hoping to change the fortunes of a defense that struggled to reel in interceptions.

They were tied for worst in the league with only seven interceptions in 2019, sliding down the escalator steps face-first from their post as sixth-worst in the category one year prior. 

"The No. 1 thing in winning football games is getting the ball for your offense," Nolan said in his first meeting with Cowboys media. "As a defense, that's what we'll strive to do all the time."

They've fared much better in forced fumbles and fumble recoveries as of late, however, and that's something Nolan feels he can build on going forward. It bears mentioning this isn't his first encounter with the Cowboys organization, which should add that much more fuel to the fire of what he's looking to achieve in North Texas. Dick Nolan, his late father, was once a safety and former coach of the Cowboys in several different capacities, and Mike Nolan was once walked back into the team's locker room on the shoulders of "Dandy" Don Meredith himself. 

Decades later, the shoulders everything rests on, defensively, are his very own. 

Having already spoken with some players on that side of the ball, including All-Pro pass rusher DeMarcus Lawrence, Nolan feels good about the foundation of the defense but knows there's work to be done, personnel-wise, outside of cornerstone players like Lawrence. His needs will be voiced passionately in free agency but, much more so, in the 2020 NFL Draft, as the Cowboys readily admit they'll "do things a bit different" to get him what he needs to succeed.

That shouldn't be difficult, architecturally, because Nolan isn't beating the drum to draft for scheme like former defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli did for years on end. While he'll keep the incumbent 4-3 in place, he'll run a hybrid system that keeps opponents guessing and, as such, he and McCarthy need/want the best players with the highest ceiling -- as opposed to prototype pegs that fit comfortably in a certain hole.

Doubling down on McCarthy's recent comments to that effect, Nolan probably wouldn't mind doing away with the word "scheme" altogether.

"Players will determine what we can do and what we cannot do -- not the scheme," he said. "The scheme is basically what you have to utilize the players, it goes the other way. I tell you what, 3-4 and 4-3 is really just a personnel decision to get your best 11 on the field. Outside of that, it's just spacing between the 11 players you have. 

"All the 3-4 teams and the 4-3 teams play a lot of the same fronts, but I have always believed it's about getting your best 11 on the field, and from there -- whether that entails calling yourself a 3-4 or a 4-3 -- you want to get the best 11 out there."

Newly-signed defensive line coach Jim Tomsula agrees wholeheartedly. He and Nolan aren't unfamiliar with each other, having spent time together as members of the San Francisco 49ers coaching staff in the late 2000s, when the latter was head coach and the former served as defensive line coach for the club. Now reunited by McCarthy in Dallas, their prior working relationship makes it easy for their two similar styles to remarry, and Tomsula's looking forward to it. 

"Whatever fits," he said. "If you're an under front and the weak side defensive end stands up, you're a 3-4. If he puts his hand on the ground you're a 4-3. You know what I mean, the semantics? 

"So, first of all, whatever fits the players. It will fit around players."

It's an alien concept in Dallas, as is consistently intercepting the ball, but it's past time those UFOs landed.

Our Latest Stories