Cowboys fire defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, DL coach Jim Tomsula after historically bad season

The Cowboys fired defensive coordinator Mike Nolan and defensive line coach Jim Tomsula, the team announced Friday.

The moves come after a 6-10 season in which the Cowboys allowed more points (473) and more touchdowns (57) than any unit in the team's 61-season history.

“I am appreciative of my relationships with both Mike and Jim, and I am grateful for the contributions that both of them made to our team under difficult circumstances in 2020,” head coach Mike McCarthy said. “These are never easy decisions to make, and we wish them, and their families, the very best in the future.”

McCarthy hired both in 2020 when he succeeded Jason Garrett as Cowboys head coach.

Dallas fired defensive coordinator Mike Nolan on Friday. (Photo: Tim Heitman, USA TODAY Sports)

Defensive struggles this season were widespread and date back to spring. Players struggled to grasp Nolan’s scheme during the virtual offseason and the effect was evident when the season began. Even Jerry Jones, the owner and general manager, has said he regrets the ambitious scheme change in a pandemic-disrupted transition.

Miscommunication and missed assignments, eye discipline and effort wrecked the Cowboys’ defensive season. The run defense was perhaps most egregious, the 158.8 yards per game second-worst in the league and in team history. After the Cowboys’ 34-17 loss to the Ravens on Dec. 8, discussions at the Star turned to “finish” – or lack thereof, as Baltimore became the third team to gash the Cowboys for more than 260 yards on the ground alone. Opponents averaged 4.98 yards per carry against them and ripped off plays of at least 20 yards 69 times.

“We went through some tough battles at the beginning of the season, not me personally with Coach, but I’m just saying in general as a defense, we went through tough battles,” defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence said. “When you’re playing with young guys on the defense, you have to take into consideration that some things that are easy for me won’t be easier for the next person.”

Lawrence said he respects Nolan “as a man because he looked himself in the mirror and he changed some things to make us play faster and help us play better. We started to see the improvements. I mean it was later in the season, but we started to see improvements.”

Cowboys DC Mike Nolan, DL coach Jim Tomsula not returning in 2021.

“I am appreciative of my relationships with (them) and I am grateful for the contributions that both of them made to our team under difficult circumstances in 2020,” Mike McCarthy said.

The Cowboys’ last four opponents comprised losing teams, but the group nonetheless displayed more intensity and a drastic turnaround in takeaways. In the first seven games of the season, they forced just three turnovers. In the final four weeks, they collected 12.

“When you're in the dry spell, you feel like it will never come,” Nolan said Dec. 21. “But I think as we've said all along, we're just in the process of trying to become some things that we weren't in the past: one of them being a team that gets some turnovers."

McCarthy and Nolan’s history dates back 15 years, when Nolan was San Francisco head coach and hired McCarthy as his offensive coordinator. The following season, in 2006, McCarthy became head coach of the Green Bay Packers. Tomsula worked under Nolan in San Francisco after McCarthy’s departure.

The Cowboys will seek to find a defensive coordinator who can maximize talent despite the team investing more heavily in its offensive cast. Offensive starters expected to return include Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and multiple Pro Bowl offensive linemen. Secondary and defensive tackle will be top priorities for the Cowboys in free agency.

If the Cowboys look to replace Nolan internally, they could consider senior defensive assistant George Edwards, who served as Vikings defensive coordinator from 2014-19.

Regardless, Jerry Jones sees a key area of improvement he wants his next defensive coordinator to emphasize.

“The word is disciplined,” Jones said Tuesday on 105.3 The Fan. “It's real obvious. When you look at a defense that gives up big plays … that is directly to the word in the dictionary called discipline of doing your assignment … 

“It's just going to take a lot of work.”

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter@JoriEpstein

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