Not everyone at Redskin Park gets to bask in the glow of the Washington Redskins' 5-2 record and place atop the NFC East standings. A day rarely goes by without defensive coordinator Mike Nolan hearing, reading or being asked about his job security.
The Redskins have the NFL's last-ranked defense entering Sunday's game against the Buffalo Bills at Redskins Stadium, and Nolan's future has been debated inside and outside the organization since the team squandered a three-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter to lose its season opener to the Dallas Cowboys.
Nolan acknowledged yesterday that this has been his most trying season. But it hasn't been the speculation about his possible dismissal that has worn on him, he said. He is the son of a former NFL head coach, Dick Nolan. He has coached in the NFL for 13 years, and he said he realizes that talk about getting fired--and actually getting fired--comes with the territory.
The wearying part, Nolan said, is the search for solutions to the problems that have produced the speculation.
"I'm not motivated by job security, I'm really not," Nolan said. "The question, to me, is one of people not knowing me or not knowing the profession. Coaching is a volatile job. I grew up in it. I know the problems that exist. And if you ever become a coach because you want job security, those are contradicting things. What bothers me is the problems we've had, the things that have led to our statistical downfall. Mental errors bother me because it's carelessness in many cases. It's hard to understand that. It's not professional.
"The job security factor, that's a motivational factor for some people, but it's not for me. My motivation is success. I want to be good. I want to do well."
After the Redskins beat the Carolina Panthers, 38-36, on Oct. 3, owner Daniel M. Snyder was the catalyst for the deliberations that led the club to hire Bill Arnsparger to assist Nolan. Snyder says that he never has pressed Coach Norv Turner to fire Nolan. It's clear, however, that Nolan and special teams coach LeCharls McDaniel are under the most scrutiny among the members of Turner's staff.
Turner repeatedly has indicated that Nolan's job is safe, and he said yesterday: "Mike is really a heck of a competitor. He's been around coaching a long time. I think he's done a great job. He's continued to do what he believes in and what we believe in, and he's working through what we're doing."
The Redskins have played reasonably well in two of the three games since Arnsparger's arrival, sandwiching improved performances in wins over the Arizona Cardinals and Chicago Bears around a poor outing in another loss to the Cowboys. But the Cardinals and Bears have less-than-imposing offenses, and Nolan doesn't claim that the team's defensive problems are fixed.
"We're progressing," Nolan said. "But we haven't arrived, by any means."
The Redskins defense has done some good things that mostly have been overlooked. The Redskins have 14 interceptions, and their plus-11 turnover margin is by far the NFC's best.
"We've contributed to every win," Nolan said. "It wasn't like we put us in a situation where we couldn't win."
Still, the Redskins expected far more from a defense that has four former first-round draft picks starting on the line (ends Kenard Lang and Marco Coleman and tackles Dan Wilkinson and Dana Stubblefield) and two more starting at cornerback (Darrell Green and Champ Bailey). It looked like a potentially dominant defense during the preseason, but since the regular season started it has struggled mightily.
"I don't think anyone thought we would be where we are right now statistically," Nolan said. "I'm pleased with the results from a turnover standpoint. That obviously has contributed to the wins that we've had. But the mental errors have me disturbed. It's carelessness when you break down mentally. If I break down mentally, then I basically hand it over to you. There's no competing going on then."
It wasn't so long ago that Nolan was viewed as one of the league's rising young coaches. Now, at age 40 and in his third season as the Redskins' defensive coordinator, he is in a no-win situation. If the team's defense improves, Arnsparger undoubtedly will get the credit. Nolan can only get blame. Even so, he says he's happy to have his longtime friend around.
"It's worked out very well," Nolan said of his pairing with Arnsparger, who sits in the press box during games, communicating with Nolan via a headset.
"I think there have been some real positive things. We're trying to improve, and Bill's been a real help. . . . When my ego is bigger than trying to correct the problem, then I need to go because then I'm part of the problem. . . . If he gets credit, good. He's been a big help. I'm glad he's here."
Since the hiring of Arnsparger, the Redskins' defense has surrendered 6.2 fewer points and 76 fewer yards per game than it did beforehand. It has cut opponents' rushing yards per game from 141.5 to 83.
Turner said: "It's worked extremely well. They've got great give and take. When you have someone like that who can come in and be a catalyst for new ideas and be a guy who reinforces things you believe in . . . it helps you."
Nolan can only hope he already has reached the low point and the recovery program is under way.
"I don't know that I've been on the very top before, but I've been pretty close," Nolan said. "This one's different. The thing that tires you out is searching for answers. You look for solutions and it takes a lot of time, and that part wears you down. It wears you down emotionally. It wears you down physically and mentally. You spend long hours. You don't ever wish to be here. But when you are here, what are you going to be like? You'll always know."
Redskins Notes: Matt Turk punted during practice yesterday, but Turner said he won't decide Turk's status until Sunday morning. The Redskins decided against releasing Brian Hansen, who would punt Sunday if Turk's back spasms flare up again. . . . The Redskins placed fullback Larry Bowie, defensive end Ndukwe Kalu, defensive tackle Barron Tanner and safety Leomont Evans on their early inactive list for Sunday's game.
BEFORE AND AFTER
The Redskins' defense, before and after the addition of veteran coach
Bill Arnsparger to the staff to assist defensive coordinator Mike Nolan:
Before* After# Totals
Points allowed per game 29.5 23.3 26.9
Yards allowed per game 433.0 357.0 400.7
Rushing yards allowed per game 141.5 83.0 116.4
Record 3-1 2-1 5-2
*Opponents: Dallas, N.Y. Giants, N.Y. Jets, Carolina
#Opponents: Arizona, Dallas, Chicago