If you’ve ever seen a wet paper bag attempt to stop a freight train, you’ve seen the equivalent of what the Dallas Cowboys defense looks like in 2020. It’s not simply bad, it’s historically bad. The unit has allowed an eye-gouging 146 combined points over the first four games — giving them the dubious honor of being the worst in franchise history — and overshadowing a prolific (albeit imperfect) offense in the process. After allowing the Cleveland Browns to steal their lunch money and shove them into a locker in Week 4, amassing 49 points at AT&T Stadium and 307 rushing yards despite the first quarter loss of Nick Chubb, there are obvious questions to be answered, and they mostly involve defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.
Nolan was hired as one of several favorites of Mike McCarthy during this offseason’s regime change after the Cowboys parted ways with Jason Garrett and his band of unmerry men. Despite having not held a defensive coordinator position since 2014 with the Atlanta Falcons, McCarthy was anxious to get Nolan to Dallas — to the point of stealing him away from the New Orleans Saints (where he was operating as linebackers coach) — to help level up a defense that finished 11th in the league with 20.1 points per game allowed in 2019.
They currently average 36.5 points allowed heading into Week 5, a 14.4-point leap right into oncoming traffic.
“Very high confidence in Mike Nolan,” Mike McCarthy told media on Monday when pressed about potential changes to come at coordinator. “We are going to stay the course. A lot conversation as you would expect. Mike and I were here last night.
“John Fassel and I were here last night. We’ve spent more times on these kinda games than you probably should. We are on top of where we are. We don’t like the way it turned out. Certainly understand the point totals. Driver starters — as far as 20 percent of the drives have started across the 50.
“That is a challenge for any defense. We are focusing on the details of the things that we need to do better. My confidence is very high in Mike Nolan.”
Owner Jerry Jones doubled down on the stance in a Tuesday talk with 105.3FM the Fan.
“No,” he said when asked if there’d a change. “If you think about it at this juncture, that’s not something that you would go to. Don’t need to. We’re getting the benefit of a coach that has a lot of experience.
“He’s seen a lot of football. He’s coached a lot of football. He’s lived around a lot of football. He has answers there.
“Can they be answers that we all get on the page with? But that’s the issue. That’s the challenge of how to execute it when it’s in live action. But we’ve got somebody here that can tell you where we’re apt, where we’re inept, where we need changes as well as anybody on the planet in Mike.”
There’s a lot to dissect when it comes to a defensive unit labeled as “soft” by All-Pro pass rusher DeMarcus Lawrence, and that includes the aforementioned imperfect offense turning the ball over frequently. That forces the struggling defense back onto the field frequently and thus begins the tailspin, leaving the same offense to then have to toss on capes in an attempt to save the day. But sitting at 1-3 on the season, they’ve only been able to do so once thus far. And with Dak Prescott averaging more than 50 pass attempts per game — 57.5 over the last two outings — there’s a massive imbalance created by all sides involved (including special teams and their own list of failings).
Still, Kellen Moore’s offense is again No. 1 in the league in yards per game (407.8) by nearly 100 yards per contest and averaging 31.5 points per game, with Dak Prescott currently leading the league in passing yards (1,690 along with nine touchdowns to three interceptions). Prescott is on pace to obliterate the current NFL single season passing record held by Peyton Manning to the tune of 6,760 (!!) total yards — besting Manning by a ridiculous 1,283 yards — should he continue throwing more than a starting MLB pitcher.
In reality, those offensive numbers are good enough to land most teams a 4-0 record. But when the defense is basically an apparition for four quarters, it doesn’t matter how much you score, if the other team is allowed to score more.
That’s literally how this all works.
“Everyone wants to No. 1 win, and play better,” said McCarthy. “You know, we’ve had four games and frankly, the formula for how these games have unfolded is not our outlook for how we want to play. I mean, we don’t want to throw the ball 55 times and we don’t want to start our defense 20 percent of the time on the other side of the 50. We’ve only had one serious start on the good side of the 50.
“All of those things. You look at the stats. You can twist it any way you want it, but it’s very clear our time of possession, turnover ratio, how we’re challenging the quarterback of the opponent, is clearly not within the outlook of how we want to play games.”
For his part, Nolan points at the absence of a traditional offseason to fully acclimate players to his scheme.
While that’s a reasonable point in a preseason-less year, with four games now in the books, the Cowboys defense is actually worse than it was in Week 1, when they held the high-powered Los Angeles Rams to just 20 points. Injuries don’t help either, considering the team has four defensive starters currently on injured reserve, but there’s something to be said for a unit that looks lost on a weekly basis.
“I would say, usually, the end of training camp, you’ve got three or four preseason games for guys to work the techniques that we’re talking about, whether they’re standing up or going down,” Nolan said on Monday, referencing the struggles in transitioning some players between two different pass rush techniques. “And so, the fact that it takes a few weeks for them to feel comfortable in certain situations better than others to stand up and not, I think that’s really more the case than looking at it as the third or fourth week of the season. We’re just finishing up a preseason from the standpoint of the amount of games.
“Again, it takes time to feel how you want to use the stance that you’re in. I think that’s the case. Look, I believe that some have benefitted from it, and they’ll continue to benefit. I think it’s a little bit more about the player when he feels most comfortable being in a 2-point, if he’s a 3-point player. If a guy is not, like I’ve said before, it’s not a critical thing that they stand up in a 2-point.”
Two weeks after Everson Griffen noted he’d put his hand back in the dirt after struggling to rush standing up, he’s also struggling in his base position and the defensive front as a whole is still having trouble getting home on the opposing quarterback, save for Aldon Smith. The linebacker corps (outside of Joe Thomas) also looks in shambles, leading Nolan and even Jerry Jones to have to defend Jaylon Smith publicly, while the secondary struggles to get the job done despite a promising start to the NFL career of rookie second-round pick Trevon Diggs.
So yes, players get paid to execute, but coordinators get paid to coordinate. Right now, neither of those two things are happening in Dallas, or at least not with any semblance of success. Things are so out of sorts that Jones and sources with knowledge of the coaches’ thought processes are beginning to wonder if players are abandoning the scheme due to their struggles to grasp it, instead of doing what they believe might break them out of their own respective slump.
“I judge the talent,” said Jones. “I judge the talent by what we’ve had in the past. I judge the talent by what we’re asking them to do, what the schemes are asking them to do. They need to do it. They need to do it in unison.”
That’s quite the not-so-subtle hint.
“They need to basically execute the scheme and the plan and let the plan, trust the plan,” he continued. “Trust the scheme. You hear that all the time — just trust the play, trust your preparation, trust the play. And that can be challenging if you’ve got a new system, and we certainly have a new system. But there’s other clubs that have new systems, too, especially over on the defensive side of the ball. So, I think we will trust our schemes better.
“I certainly think your coaching staff is capable and can make adjustments. This business we’re in is nothing but a week to week series of adjustments. It’s all about adjusting, and you’ve got to be a different team as you move through the year. We’re capable of all of that. This is a good coaching staff. Got a lot of confidence in it. I think we have a really good chance of being a lot better as we go forward here.”
In other words, the Cowboys defenders don’t yet trust Nolan’s scheme, which hints largely at a bigger problem down the road — if all sides can’t get on the same page. For now, they’re not even in the same book, or on the same shelf, or even in the same library. And until/unless that’s resolved, no amount of confidence-boosting sound bytes will change what the Cowboys are allowing to happen to them on the field.
“Defensively — is really a whole different family of defense schematically,” McCarthy said of his faux defense. “We’re not where we want to be right now. I think that’s stating the obvious. We’re going through that transition.”
That they are, but opposing offenses don’t care. And wet paper bags don’t stop freight trains.