On Tuesday, newly hired Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy brought aboard respected defensive mind Mike Nolan as defensive coordinator.
Nolan worked most recently as a linebackers coach for the New Orleans Saints, but has 21 years of NFL experience as a defensive coordinator or head coach.
Having yet another seasoned football mind and former NFL head coach on board is exciting (Former Dolphins HC Joe Philbin and former 49ers HC Jim Tomsula also expected to be on staff), but an even bigger reason to feel good about the hire is Nolan’s history of bending his scheme to fit the talent available.
Nolan has a reputation as an employer of the 3-4 scheme, which is true to some degree but does not tell the entire story. Nolan is more flex or “multiple” front defensive coordinator. If you watch a Mike Nolan defense, you are likely to see some 3-4, 4-3, and even 3-3-5 concepts.
The term “3-4” frightens a lot of Cowboys fans, assuming that means some sort of lengthy, multi-year defensive overhaul. As often as teams play nickel (4-2-5) in this day and age, “3-4” doesn’t quite mean what it used to.
Furthermore, Nolan’s history of playing players of all shapes and sizes along the defensive front should be exciting for Cowboys fans.
Under the suggestion of Rod Marinelli, the Cowboys acquired defensive line talent with rigid specificity. When it came to 3-techniques, 1-techniques, and right ends, traits like height, weight, arm length, burst, all had to be just right. 3-techs need not be too tall, but still, need reasonably long arms and a wicked first step. 1-techniques can’t just be mountainous space eaters, not much over 300 lbs., but strong enough to take on a double team. Right ends need to twitchy and bendy, not to big (270+), yet not too small (under 245).
The Marinelli template was maddening. Ideal 3-techniques and right ends are some of the rarest bipedal mammals on earth. They require premium draft capital to acquire as new players and rarely hit the market as free agents. It’s like Marinelli designed this state of the art spaceship, but never got it off the ground because it could only be powered by the rarest elements in the galaxy. He sent the Cowboys searching all throughout the solar system, and they came back mostly empty-handed, passing up plenty of Jonathan Hankinses, Jarran Reeds, and T.J. Watts along the way.
The days of ultra-specificity in defensive line acquisition look to be over. If you look at Nolan’s last three stops as DC, you can see that Nolan has employed defensive linemen of all shapes and sizes, and worked contrasting types in concert.
Nolan worked Chris Baker (6’2″/320) and Marcus Thomas (6’3/320) inside as tackles, two players who would have been questionable fits under Dallas’ last regime.
The mammoth Paul Soliai (6’4″/344) anchored the middle as a 0/1 technique former Cowboy Igor Olshansky (6’6″/309) playing the 5-technique “end.” Neither player would have gotten a look from Dallas in their most recent scheme.
Now here is where it gets fun. Mike Nolan shifted Atlanta to much more of a traditional 4-3 look. Interior players like Jonathon Babineaux (6’2″/281) and Peria Jerry (6’1″/290) fit the mold of what Cowboys fans have grown accustomed to in recent years. However, Nolan brought back his big space-eater Soliai (6’4″/344), drafted jumbo end/tackle Rashede Hageman (6’6″/310) and made it all work in concert.
With Nolan in control, none of the Cowboys’ returning defensive linemen need be thrown overboard for the sake of “fit.” If Greg Ellis could adjust to play (and succeed) in Wade Phillips’ more rigid 3-4 more than a decade ago, DeMarcus Lawrence can learn to play in a flex front, standing up on occasion.
Trysten Hill and Dorance Armstrong can continue to develop without the worry of having to augment their bodies to take on entirely new roles. Tyrone Crawford is a veteran who has played all across the line, in a variety of fronts. If the team chooses to bring him back as a Swiss army knife defender, his learning curve will be nil.
Equally important, ALL quality front seven players in free agency and the draft will get consideration. The team no longer needs to strike a black line through half of the available prospects in the name of “fit.”
If the Cowboys want to sturdy up the interior with a “trash can full of dirt” like Beau Allen or Danny Shelton in free agency, they can do that now. When the draft rolls around, those hefty defensive tackles Dallas fans have been clamoring for will be in play now. Guys like Tedarrell Slaton (Florida, 6’5″/343), Leki Fotu (Utah, 6’5″/330), and Benito Jones (Ole Miss 6’1″/330) will all be in play now. The jumbo end, 5-technique types like James Lynch (Baylor, 6’4″/295″) and NC State’s Larrell Murchison (6’3″/291) will be back on the board as well.
The Cowboys’ defense needs some retooling, and the process will now be expedited by the deepening of the talent pool to include all quality players, with much less regard to “fit.” Those who can produce will be acquired and put in a position to do so.
All the ballers will be welcome.