Yesterday's announcement that Washington Redskins defensive coordinator Mike Nolan will not be back for a fourth season wasn't a shock. Despite an impressive finish, the defense early in the year dug a statistical hole so deep that it was nearly impossible to extricate itself.
In separate news conferences but in similarly amicable tones, Nolan and Coach Norv Turner stressed that the decision to part, after three seasons together, was reached jointly after two days of conversations that encompassed everything from players to coaches to personal lives. Dismissed along with Nolan was defensive backs coach Tom Hayes. The retirement of Earl Leggett, 64, one of two defensive line coaches, coincided with the shakeup.
Redskins owner Daniel M. Snyder telegraphed his early assessment of Nolan shortly after acquiring the team last summer, criticizing the defense in 1998 as "vanilla." There was no enmity between owner and coordinator, but the two never seemed to hit it off, either, at least outwardly.
Still, the call about whether to retain Nolan was ultimately Turner's. It was a difficult one, according to associates, despite the defense's final ranking--30th among 31 NFL teams--that suggested it should have been easy.
It was a natural time for taking stock.
Nolan's three-year contract was about to expire. Under the Cooke family's stewardship, the contracts of Redskins coaches typically rolled over after two seasons. That practice wasn't followed last spring, however, because of the turmoil surrounding the team.
Snyder made it clear shortly after taking control of the team this summer that everyone at Redskin Park--from Turner to the grounds keepers--was on a one-year audition.
Nolan's defense, in particular, was under scrutiny from the start--and not surprisingly, given its drop in the NFL rankings from 16th in 1997 to 24th in 1998 despite the addition of pricey defensive tackles Dan Wilkinson and Dana Stubblefield.
Former defensive great Jim Marshall was brought in as a consultant during training camp. But when it came time to play, Marshall's message--the primacy of "focus"--amounted to little. It was a fourth-quarter defensive collapse against the Dallas Cowboys in the season opener that spelled defeat, by 41-35, in overtime. The loss--on a 76-yard touchdown pass--made Nolan and his staff skittish about blitzing for weeks to come.
Snyder was quick to act when the Redskins needed offensive heroics in Game 4 to pull out a 38-36 victory over Carolina after the defense gave up 21 first-quarter points. Another defensive guru, Bill Arnsparger, 73, was pressed into service as a consultant.
The statistical needle was slow to budge. As opponents piled up the yardage and points, defensive players talked about wanting to blitz more, attack more and play a more aggressive style of game. Understandably, there were reservations.
The defensive line, which opened the season with four former first-round draft picks, played below expectations. The linebacking corps was heavy on youth and enthusiasm but little else. There was precious little pass rush, with no suitable replacement found for four-time Pro Bowl linebacker Ken Harvey. And the defensive backfield featured a rookie and veteran cornerback who excelled at man coverage, rather than zone.
Defensive end Marco Coleman addressed the dissonance between coaches and players earlier this week as he packed for the offseason, with Nolan's future in doubt.
"Through my whole career, there has always been a thing where the players want to do something different than the coaches," Coleman said. "It's never been where they completely agree with what the coaches are doing. It's going to be like that whether Coach Nolan is here or whoever is there. The biggest thing is we were able to perform well."
And the 1999 Redskins defense did its job in the season's late stages. The unit allowed 29.5 points per game through the first four games. Over the last four games, it gave up just 14.3 points.
Turner secured his return for a seventh season by clinching a playoff berth, and, along with it, a 10-6 record and the NFC East championship.
As questions about Nolan's return swirled, team officials indicated his fate would be determined by the defense's play in the postseason. If so, it would have been one of the easier offseason decisions. The defense acquitted itself well in the playoffs, easily handling an erratic Detroit offense in the Redskins' 27-13 first-round victory and shutting down Tampa Bay's potent running game in the 14-13 NFC semifinal loss.
But it was through a wide-angle lens, rather than a narrowly focused one, that Turner viewed his defense in the wake of his best season to date. The finish was fine, to be sure. But in the end, neither Nolan nor Turner could summon the enthusiasm to sign on for three more years together.
"We did discuss a lot of things and actually tried to make certain things work," Nolan said. "There are things he would have felt good about, but there are some other things he would have continued to not be happy about that just weren't going to change for either of us. It just wasn't a fit."