Nolan Notebook: Top 10 Takeaways From Our Conversation With New Cowboys Defensive Coordinator

Mike Fisher

FRISCO - New Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is mostly a no-nonsense guy. At 60, he's got a fit and chiseled look about him, and when he talks with you, it's with a square jaw and a square look in his eye. But there was one moment during a Monday visit with the media here inside The Star when coach Mike McCarthy's long-time associate and top defensive staffer softened a bit.

That moment leads the Nolan Notebook: Takeaways From Our Conversation Inside The Star With the New Cowboys Defensive Coordinator

1) Fifty-plus years ago, Mike's dad, the late Dick Nolan, launched a career in Dallas as a fixture on Tom Landry's coaching staff. When Nolan recently toured The Star upon being hired, he was fascinated by the hallways full of oversized paintings and portraits of Cowboys legends.

dick nolan

He took pride in being able to match jersey numbers with men coached by Landry and his father ... and reminisced when a vision of Don Meredith appeared.

Nolan recalled being hoisted onto Meredith's shoulders, riding atop the Cowboys QB and legend in the making - and a TV legend in the making as well.

"In years to follow,'' Mike said. "when (Meredith) was on 'Monday Night Football,' I remember being like, 'Hey, that's the guy that put me on his shoulders!''

2) Nolan told me that while his career has taken him all over the country, at least part of his attraction to this job is the roots he's maintained in DFW. His 91-year-old mother, for instance, lives in the area.

3) The Cowboys continue to pound away at the approach that in 2020, this will be a "players-first'' defense rather than a "system-first'' defense.

"Players will determine what we can do and what we cannot do – not the scheme," Nolan said. "The scheme is basically what you have to utilize the players, it goes the other way."

We'll still contend that this is going to be a four-down-linemen front, an that the promises of "newness'' are likely overblown. But ...

4) "The Best 11'' is a real thing. And Nolan addressed that concept.

"Whether it's a 3-4 and 4-3 (front), it is really just a personnel decision to get your best 11 on the field,'' he said. "Outside of that, it's just spacing between the 11 players you have.

"Whether that entails calling yourself a 3-4 or a 4-3, you want to get the best 11 out there."

What the Cowboys will actually be is more "multiple'' than they've been under the Raiders-bound Rod Marinelli - assuming they accumulate the sort of players who can do that.

5) What's the value of "multiple''? "I believe if you peg yourself too much in just one hole about doing one thing, that's easy for the best quarterbacks to dissect and take advantage of," Nolan said. "So I do believe you have to have a good mix between man and zone."

6) DeMarcus Lawrence is Dallas' best defensive player and Nolan joked about how positive it is that Tank is under contract. "That's a good thing, right?,'' he said.

"I had the chance to meet (Lawrence) the other day,'' Nolan said. "I was impressed as an individual goes. He's bright-eyed. He's excited."

7) Overall, despite the volume of unsigned Cowboys, Nolan sees great promise on the roster.

"I just think there's a good nucleus of guys on defense that are good building blocks for us going forward,'' he said.

8) Dallas wants to be "a swarming defense.'' Nolan mentioned this multiple times, as did other staffers. It's a good buzzword. It stimulates Cowboys Nation. But as with McCarthy, Will McClay and the Joneses promising that the goal is to "get good players,'' it really isn't a change. "Swarming'' is what every defense is supposed to be.

9) We've speculated that one real change in the way Dallas does its defensive business might come in the pursuit of defensive backs who are "ball-hawks.'' Nolan seemed to suggest as much when he quoted Troy Aikman as saying that as a QB he didn't have much fear of the DB who might knock down a pass.

"I'm not really concerned with throwing at a corner that I know is just gonna knock the ball down,'' Nolan quoted Troy as saying. "I throw incompletions all the time. But when I throw at Deion (Sanders), I gotta be concerned ...''

In other words: Nolan - who believes the "No. 1 thing'' in winning is takeaways - might just push the scouting department to back off its desire for "traits'' to instead seek out cornerbacks who can catch the football.

10) Nolan is clearly enjoying playing with new toys. He's been a head coach in the NFL, and a coordinator, and last year was the Saints linebackers coach. And now he's in charge of something he's fired up about helping mold.

"That excites me, the opportunity to work with new guys, find out what their skills are and what they do well and try to use those as best you can," Nolan said.

Register today for free or log in to access this premium article.