Mike Nolan wants Cowboys defense to have 'swarming type of mentality'

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FRISCO, Texas -- As Mike Nolan walks around The Star, the pictures on the walls keep stopping him. They are black and white and from some of the earliest days of the Dallas Cowboys, but he can't help but look at them.

It takes him back to when he was 5 years old and his father, Dick, was a coach on Tom Landry's staff and Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith would hoist Mike on his shoulders and take him around the locker room. Behind Mike's desk is a picture of Ernie Stautner, who coached with his father in Dallas and later coached with the younger Nolan in Denver (1991-92).

"I don't know if there's a picture on the walls that I don't [know who's in them]. I certainly remember all the players," Nolan said. "And I even challenge myself sometimes. I think I saw a running back's picture. It was a 43 and correct me if I'm wrong, but I think I guessed Perkins. Would that have been right?"

When he was told Don Perkins wore No. 43, he said, "Oh, good. I'm 100 percent. That was one of the ones that threw me off a little bit. The name wasn't on the back [of the jersey], but anyhow, I do have fun with the pictures."

As much as Nolan has had fun reminiscing, his new job as coach Mike McCarthy's defensive coordinator is keeping him busy.

Nolan, 60, spent the past three years as the linebackers coach of the New Orleans Saints but has 32 years experience as an NFL coach. He was the San Francisco 49ers' head coach from 2005 through 2008, following in his father's footsteps (49ers coach, 1968-75). Mike has been a defensive coordinator for seven NFL teams. He has been involved in both 3-4 and 4-3 defensive schemes, but with the Cowboys will continue with the four-man front the team has employed since 2013.

Even that doesn't mean much these days to Nolan.

"It is really just a personnel decision to get your best 11 on the field," Nolan said. "Outside of that, it's just spacing between the 11 players you have."

Regardless of system, he wants his defense to be relentless.

"You want it to look like a swarming type of mentality," Nolan said. "I believe there's parts of coaching that goes into that. The things you do with players, the way you teach your players, everything from the language to the scheme, I think, are all critical factors in making it looking just like that."

Nolan is meeting with his Cowboys staff to compose a defense that blends what he has picked up over the years with their knowledge -- including Jim Tomsula's work with a three-man line, George Edwards' work in the double A-gap blitzes that Mike Zimmer favored in Minnesota, and the work of defensive backs coach Mo Linguist's system at Texas A&M.

"Doesn't always happen that way," said Tomsula, who worked with Nolan in San Francisco. "I mean, I've been in different places where a guy shows up, throws a book on the table and you go. Coach Nolan is different. You can tell he's cerebral. ...He sits down and he wants your opinions. He wants your thoughts. He's always learning. He's a guy that shows up in the room with a pen and pencil."

Dallas coaches are studying the personnel because some of it might drastically change. Defensive end Robert Quinn, who led the Cowboys in sacks (11.5) in 2019, linebacker Sean Lee, cornerbacks Byron Jones and Anthony Brown, linebacker Joe Thomas and defensive tackle Maliek Collins are among the defenders set to become free agents in March.

Nolan doesn't know who will be working in the scheme, but he wants to ensure it translates to the players the Cowboys will have in 2020.

"All those things come together," said Edwards, who is in his second tour with the Cowboys and is a senior defensive assistant. "We're drawing upon everybody's experience no matter where you're from or how long or whatever. There's always something new to learn. ...There's always something to grasp that we can use to help develop the skill sets of the players that we have."

There have been two knocks on the Cowboys' defense in recent years: They were too easy to figure out and they did not take the ball away enough.

The simplicity was by design. Former defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli believed in an effort-based defense where speed meant more than scheme.

Contrary to popular opinion, the Cowboys were not a Tampa 2 defense, despite Marinelli's ties to that style from decades ago. The Cowboys played mostly a single-high safety defense that passing game coordinator Kris Richard added to when he became the signal-caller in 2018.

"They just kind of did what they do," New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold said after beating the Cowboys in Week 6 of last season. "They do it every single week. They just play one-high [safety], occasionally two-high, and they like to stop the run. I knew that I had to throw the ball today to have success, and we did that."

Nolan wants the Cowboys to be more complex.

"If you give yourself too much of doing one thing, that's easy for the best quarterbacks to dissect and take advantage of," he said. "You have to have a good mix between man and zone. ... You don't want to create so much volume that you really don't have an identity, but you have to have some kind of variety in order to be successful."

The takeaways have been an issue for years; the Cowboys tied a franchise low with seven interceptions in 2019. In the past five seasons, the Cowboys' 43 interceptions are tied with the San Francisco 49ers for the fewest in the NFL. The Kansas City Chiefs have the most with 87.

"The No. 1 thing in football is getting the ball for your offense," Nolan said.

He also said most of that comes down to a player's knack for being around the ball, although he said that skill can be improved with drills.

"I was talking to Troy Aikman probably 15 years ago, and I remember him talking about defensive backs and throwing against them," Nolan said. "And he said, 'You know, I'm not really concerned throwing at a corner that's just going to knock the ball down. I throw incompletions all the time.' We were talking about Deion [Sanders] and he said, 'But when I throw against Deion, I've got to be concerned about the ball going for 6 the other way.' And I thought that was a great point. The really good quarterbacks, I think, recognize the same things. There really is no fear in throwing the ball if it's going to be complete or on the ground, but when that guy covering him can take it the other way, that's a difference-maker."

In each of the past three seasons, the Cowboys' defense ranked in the top 10 in yards per game and allowed a respectable 20.4 points per game during that span.

But when it mattered most, the unit failed to produce key plays during key moments.

If Nolan can do more of that, then perhaps his picture will be on the walls of The Star for years to come as coaches recall more great teams from the Cowboys' history.