FRISCO, Texas – The talk always centers around the scheme when a new coach gets hired. But the Cowboys' new coaching staff continues to steer it toward the players.
Speaking to reporters for the first time after being hired as the Cowboys' defensive coordinator, Mike Nolan continued to hammer that point home. From the sounds of it, the Cowboys' approach in 2020 will revolve around who they have, rather than what they'd prefer to run.
"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."
Mike McCarthy has echoed this same talking point in the weeks since taking the head coaching gig. Nolan has experience using a bunch of different schemes and philosophies during his three decades in the NFL, which naturally leads to speculation about what he might employ in Dallas.
To hear it from Nolan, it doesn't necessarily matter how you label it.
"I tell you what, 3-4 and 4-3 is really just a personnel decision to get your best 11 on the field. Outside of that, it's just spacing between the 11 players you have," he said. "All the 3-4 teams and the 4-3 teams play a lot of the same fronts. But I have always believed it's about getting your best 11 on the field, and from there – whether that entails calling yourself a 3-4 or a 4-3, you want to get the best 11 out there."
Sitting here in January, it's hard to say what the Cowboys' best 11 looks like. Seven regular starters from last year's defense are currently slated for free agency, so there are plenty of decisions looming. That doesn't include an all-new draft class, which will certainly feature some defensive talent.
"There's a lot of process and a lot of things that have to happen through this process – everything from the draft and free agency and all that, that'll determine really who are the guys that we exactly work with," Nolan said. "But I just think there's a good nucleus of guys on defense that are good building blocks for us going forward."
However the end result shakes out will determine the approach, at least in the early going of this regime. Defensive line coach Jim Tomsula has worked with Nolan before during their lengthy careers, and he said a hallmark is to mold things around the players on hand.
"Whatever fits," Tomsula said. "If you're an under front and the weak side defensive end stands up, you're a 3-4. If he puts his hand on the ground you're a 4-3. You know what I mean, the semantics? So first of all, whatever fits the players. It will fit around players."
Throughout this conversation, the focus is on the front. That's likely because the defensive front lends itself to simple, digestible alignments like "3-4" and "4-3." But Nolan noted how important the back end of a defense is, and he said it's another area where he intends to be adaptable.
"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," he said. "So I do believe you have to have a good mix between man and zone."
The possibilities are endless, and they'll center around what plays out over the coming months. In the early going of this new regime, it's a challenge Nolan is looking forward to.
"That excites me – always 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," he said.