Mike is on the spot in Dallas -- and it's not Mike McCarthy
The Dallas Cowboys haven’t been serious contenders for a Super Bowl since last claiming a Lombardi Trophy in 1996. They have won nine division titles these last 24 years but only have four playoff wins to show for it and have been unable to return to an NFC title game.
Which is why the Cowboys hired Mike McCarthy as their new head coach in 2020.
McCarthy has what these Cowboys covet – a Super Bowl ring. In his 13 seasons as head coach at Green Bay (2006-2018), McCarthy took the Packers to the playoffs nine times, reached the NFC title game four times and won a Super Bowl in 2010. An offensive guru, McCarthy’s 2011 team set franchise records for wins (15) and points (560).
The Cowboys have always favored the offensive side of the ball during the ownership of Jerry Jones. McCarthy’s Dallas offense will feature the highest-paid blocking front in football plus players earning in the top five at their positions at quarterback, running back and wide receiver. The Cowboys already have a pair of 1,000-yard wide receivers and added another elite talent on the flank in first-round draft pick CeeDee Lamb of Oklahoma.
The Cowboys were stout on offense without McCarthy and they’ll be stout again with him. So he isn’t the coach on the spot in Dallas in 2020. No, the coach on the spot this season is defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.
The Cowboys finished ninth in the NFL in defense last season. The Cowboys allowed few yards but were lacking in two key areas – sacks and takeaways. The Cowboys collected only 39 sacks and forced just 17 turnovers. That absence of big plays on defense helped sink the Cowboys to an 8-8 non-playoff finish.
In the salary-cap era, the average number of sacks by a Super Bowl champion is 42. The two teams that played for the championship last February, Kansas City and San Francisco, collected 45 and 48 sacks respectively. The Cowboys haven’t been in the 40s since 2011 when DeMarcus Ware was coming off the edge. Ware has since picked up a Super Bowl ring with the Denver Broncos and has been retired for three years now. The Cowboys averaged 36 sacks in the nine-year Jason Garrett era.
In the salary-cap era, the average number of takeaways by a Super Bowl championship defense has been 33. During the Garrett era, the Cowboy averaged 21 takeaways per season without ever once hitting 33. Dallas finished last in the NFL in interceptions in 2019 with seven, including only five from its defensive backs.
And the Cowboys didn’t leave Nolan the same inheritance they left McCarthy. The team’s best cornerback, Pro Bowler Byron Jones, and best pass rusher, Robert Quinn with 11 ½ sacks, both left this offseason in free agency. Dallas also lost its best interior pass rusher (tackle Maliek Collins) and most consistent playmaker in the secondary (safety Jeff Heath) in free agency. So 22 of the 39 sacks of a year ago are now gone.
McCarthy is on record of wanting a defense that is bigger and more athletic. The Cowboys certainly got bigger in free agency with the signing of defensive tackles Dontari Poe (346 pounds) and Gerald McCoy (300). They combined for nine sacks with the Carolina Panthers last season.
Dallas also increased its athleticism by signing former Pro Bowl edge rusher Aldon Smith. But he hasn’t played since 2015 and arrives as a huge question mark. The Cowboys also spent their second-round draft pick on Alabama cornerback Trevon Diggs, who becomes a walk-in starter out of necessity.
Nolan has been an NFL defensive coordinator for 17 seasons with eight teams, most recently with the Atlanta Falcons in 2014. He has fielded Top 10 defenses five times – in 1993 with the New York Giants, 2003-04 with the Baltimore Ravens, 2009 with the Denver Broncos and 2011 with the Miami Dolphins.
Nolan had the luxury of lining up Hall of Famers in New York (Lawrence Taylor), Baltimore (Ray Lewis and Ed Reed) and Denver (Champ Bailey and Brian Dawkins). His 2010 Dolphins finished sixth in the league in defense with only one Pro Bowler (Cameron Wake) but wound up 7-9 in the standings.
Nolan’s average defensive finish in those 17 seasons is 16th. His defenses have averaged 35 sacks and 29 takeaways per season.
When he has great players, his defenses have played great. Are there great players on this Dallas defense? What do former Pro Bowlers McCoy, Poe and Smith have left in the tank? Was DeMarcus Lawrence’s five sacks in 2019 an aberration – or were his 14 ½ sacks in 2017 the aberration? Can linebackers Sean Lee and Leighton Vander Esch stay healthy? And will a revamped secondary discover any playmakers?
The best offense in the NFL was only good for a .500 finish in 2019. If the Cowboys are to make any strides toward contention in 2020, they must come on defense.
Which puts Mike Nolan – not Mike McCarthy – on the spot in Dallas this fall.