As NFL trade deadline nears, Cowboys look like they’ve written off 2020. Yet they're doubling down on Mike Nolan

Charles Robinson
·NFL columnist
·7-min read

A season of promise and expectations has become a season of difficult decisions for the Dallas Cowboys. And the franchise is moving toward a pivotal one this week. It’s shaking up the defensive depth chart and signaling that the players — and not the coaching — are the problem.

The moves that are taking place now, including the trade of defensive end Everson Griffen and the release of defensive tackle Dontari Poe and cornerback Daryl Worley, reflect the beginnings of a roster retooling that will lean further into the scheme of defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. Here’s the Cowboys’ message to their players: If you’re a B-level or C-level contributor struggling in Nolan’s scheme and you have no long-term upside, the franchise won’t be spending additional snaps or dollars on you. Most especially if your walking papers send a blunt message to everyone left behind.

Something along the lines of, “This is where the program is going. Get on or get out.

Of course, there’s still no hiding the warts of this move. It isn’t the kind of thing a team usually kicks into motion when it’s trying to scratch out a playoff run. Franchises don’t just up and wave the white flag on a trio of veteran free agent acquisitions that they were solidly optimistic about a few months ago, even if the performance of those players landed on the spectrum of mediocre to bad (which is a generous assessment of that threesome). Even amid the struggles, to cut bait on three players only seven games into a season is suggestive that either a team is already preparing for 2021 or its front office badly miscalculated all three signings when it came to their fit in Nolan’s scheme.

For Dallas, this situation appears to be a solid helping of both.

Dallas Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch (55) talks with defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, right, in the first half of an NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals in Arlington, Texas, Monday, Oct. 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)
Dallas Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch (55) talks with defensive coordinator Mike Nolan in a blowout loss at home against Arizona on Oct. 19. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)

Cowboys defenders aren’t fitting Mike Nolan’s scheme

Lest anyone forget, while Worley was largely a versatile stopgap to cushion the loss of Byron Jones, the Cowboys signed Poe to a two-year deal with the full intention of having him as a rotational option on the defensive line through next season. The hope for Griffen was that he would have one more flourish late in his prime and potentially justify another short-term deal in 2021. Instead, all three were monumentally underwhelming in Nolan’s complex scheme, relegating the trio into a growing pile of free agency kindling that also includes safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and the injury-waived Gerald McCoy, whose three-year deal was seen as a coup by the organization last March.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, this is the carnage of a terrible offseason. The team committed to Nolan, then failed to find several fits for his scheme — if we are to believe those actually exist. Now Dallas is doubling down on Nolan and suggesting that he’s here to stay, while simultaneously left to wonder how much more fractious this retooling could get. If you don’t believe that, consider the questions that lie ahead.

What if linebacker Jaylon Smith’s current play represents his future performance in Nolan’s scheme?

Now repeat the same question for defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford, safety Xavier Woods, and cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis.

It might be easier to ask which current members of the defense can function at a consistently high level in Nolan’s scheme. If the answer is none, then why is Dallas hanging on to any of them? Why not put the entire defense on the trade block and commit to completely starting over next offseason?

That’s the quandary right now for Dallas. It is committing to Nolan by strongly committing to his biggest supporter, head coach Mike McCarthy, and trying to split the difference with the players who are struggling inside the scheme. All in the hopes that maybe some of them can adjust so that this doesn’t devolve into a complete teardown next offseason. Which it still might.

Cowboys ownership knows this. Jerry Jones doesn’t get this agitated and emotional over nothing — and surely part of his roller-coaster radio routine the past few weeks has been fueled by disappointment and the fear that this whole thing is going to be a bigger mess than he anticipated.

Why is Jerry Jones so testy on the radio?

Here’s the truth: Jones is coming to grips with a rebuild that he hoped wasn’t going to have to take place. He blew up a coaching staff and largely had his eyes fixated on the offense when he hired McCarthy. That made sense because that’s where the avalanche of salary-cap dollars was sliding toward over the next few years.

But in the wake of that tunnel vision, he lost sight of what Nolan’s addition could mean to the current base of talent. Instead of planning to strip down the defense to the studs last offseason, Jones tried to patch it up with a bunch of aging players he hoped would have something left in the gas tank, coupled with an experience level that could make them functional in Nolan’s scheme.

Now we’re in late October and Jones has realized the blueprint was completely flawed from the start. Not only did the patchwork additions fail to fit, but the young pieces aren’t settling in, either. Injuries on offense have further exposed that reality, which scuttled any hope of Dak Prescott buying Nolan and the defense some time by scratching out some wins via breakneck shootouts. Meanwhile, Jones has had to go on the radio every single week and answer for a defense that looks like it needs a complete roster overhaul, or a change in scheme or coaching.

It’s the latter point that has exposed what’s going on in Dallas. First, by way of Jones repeatedly losing his characteristic cool and breathing fire on the team-sponsored radio appearances. And then second, by Jones starting to pull back on his blue-skies demeanor. In past years, he has embraced ugly seasons by waxing about his belief that it would be turned in the right direction and how there was still a chance at the postseason. This week, his tones were far more muted, leaning instead on how McCarthy is the right guy to fix this situation in the long term and there isn’t a leadership void on the team.

Consider what he told the team’s flagship radio station, 105.3 The Fan, just before making the moves to jettison his trio of defensive veterans this week.

“Certainly we couldn’t have wanted to be at this stage with our team this year, but if I’m going to hire a coach that will be at this stage and work through this for the betterment for the rest of the year and for what’s in the future, I’ve got my man,” Jones said of McCarthy. “You wanted someone in case the you-know-what hit the fan — that had the credibility and had the doability to do what? Stand tall and strong as the head coach. And he’s doing that.”

That’s Jones spelling out to his fan base and critics that Dallas is suddenly in the midst of a process. And that the Cowboys hired the right guy just in case everything fell apart and they needed to go through this kind of thing.

To his point, that was Jones foreshadowing what was about to happen. Dallas was about to start admitting some mistakes and shake up the roster. It was going to bail on some decisions. That’s exactly what happened this week. And Jones will continue to frame it, all in the betterment of the future.

Maybe it had to happen because of the staggering run of injuries on offense. Or maybe it had to happen because a large portion of the defensive talent isn’t the right fit for the coaching staff. Either way, it’s happening and it’s going to take a while.

Gone is the pipe dream that McCarthy and Nolan were going to come in and join Kellen Moore to instantly take that sizable step that Jason Garrett, Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard couldn’t. Left behind is the reality that Dallas is headed for a retooling that might take some time. Griffen, Poe and Worley all found that out the hard way this week. There may still be more moves coming, too.

It might not be what the fan base wanted or what ownership signed up for, but the reboot under McCarthy is here. And it’s likely going to get worse before it gets better.

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