Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

18 Jan 2010

Nolan, Broncos Part Ways

Despite taking a scheme-changed Denver defense from a DVOA of 24.7% in 2008 to -7.9% in 2009, defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has left the team after he and head coach Josh McDaniels parted ways in a "mutual agreement". Nolan's already received an offer to talk to the Dolphins about their recently vacated DC position. Denver's pass defense was pretty stable at a high standard throughout the year, but the run defense plummeted from second (-18.2%) in Weeks 1-9 to 31st (11.3%) in the second half of the season.

Posted by: Doug Farrar on 18 Jan 2010

48 comments, Last at 21 Jan 2010, 11:21am by Kaveman


by The Ninjalectual :: Mon, 01/18/2010 - 8:22pm

Good for Nolan--he can do better than a team that thinks Knowshon Moreno is more valuable than Orakpo or Cushing. I wish the Redskins would have waited for Nolan to become available rather than hiring Haslett.

"Just look at that pumpkin."
-John Madden, looking at the moon.

by Chucky Margolis (not verified) :: Mon, 01/18/2010 - 8:45pm

Nolans' already been a DC for the 'Skins with Norv.

I was underwhelmed.

by Jerry :: Tue, 01/19/2010 - 6:22am

Even more importantly, so was Dan Snyder, according to Feinstein's Next Man Up.

by tunesmith :: Tue, 01/19/2010 - 2:03am

Shanahan would never have hired Nolan. That was actually part of the reason Bowlen fired him.

by The Ninjalectual :: Tue, 01/19/2010 - 2:21am

GAH you're right. I knew something didn't seem right about my OC...

by MarkV :: Mon, 01/18/2010 - 8:33pm

Seriously... McDaniels is going to make a habit of this type of off-season?

by Ryan (not verified) :: Mon, 01/18/2010 - 8:41pm

Great start fades into a mediocre season. New defensive coordinator every year. I thought we fired Shanny...

by tunesmith :: Tue, 01/19/2010 - 2:15am

My theory is that a fast start and decline means the problem is with talent, not scheme. If the problem was with scheme, they'd suck all season long. I think the whole "adjustments" thing is overstated. The pass defense stayed good because the talent level was good.

by C (not verified) :: Mon, 01/18/2010 - 8:50pm

So how long before Brandon Marshall is gone?
Tony Scheffler gone?
Cutler is already gone
Nolan is gone

How long before Josh Mcdaniels has the neck beard slinging shallow passes to the Broncos ball boy?

On a serious note, I can't stand Mike Nolan ( and he's a hot head), Jay Cutler is a hot head, Brandon Marshall is a hot head... Josh Mcdaniels looks like a 23 year old boy... Maybe some of these hot head players and a hot head former NFL coach just didn't treat Mcdaniels like a head coach? Seems like a pretty big character flaw for an NFL head coach... As an offensive coordinator it's still a problem... less so, but for an NFL coach?

by The Guy You Don't Want to Hear (not verified) :: Mon, 01/18/2010 - 10:52pm

I don't think he looks 23. I'm 24 and I think I look at least ten years older than McDaniels.

by C (not verified) :: Tue, 01/19/2010 - 9:46am

OK, Mcdaniels is a wimp and doesn't command authority. Is that better?

by Raiderjoe :: Mon, 01/18/2010 - 9:55pm

good chancne Bmarshall get tarded to Ravens or Dolphins

McDaniels doesnt seem to work well with others in denver after shining Belichick's shoes for 8 years

Nolan land on feet aomewhere soon enoguh.

by BroncosGuy (not verified) :: Mon, 01/18/2010 - 10:11pm

Unbelievable. This is simply painful to watch.

by Kibbles :: Mon, 01/18/2010 - 10:13pm

Seems pretty par for the course- member of the Broncos franchise performs his job well above average, said member finds himself no longer part of the Broncos franchise. Happened to Cutler, it's happening to Marshall and Scheffler, just happened to Nolan... how long until Dumervil gets cut and Dawkins gets forced into retirement?

by t.d. :: Mon, 01/18/2010 - 10:33pm

It's the Bill James theory that bad organizations blame their problems on their best players

by tunesmith :: Tue, 01/19/2010 - 8:42pm

Scheffler wasn't one of our best players... dropped too many passes. As for his play time, he was constrained from the unexpected weakness of our offensive line - both Hamilton and Weigmann got worse unexpectedly, so we had to have a lot more blocking help, which isn't Scheffler's strength.

by jebmak :: Mon, 01/18/2010 - 10:27pm


Not for sure, but this says likely Miami. As a Miami fan, should I be happy?

by BroncosGuy (not verified) :: Mon, 01/18/2010 - 10:40pm

Yes, he's a very solid D-coordinator. Obviously, he'll only go as far as the talent will take him, but I'd say the Broncos' D went further this past year than its collective talent had any business going. This is to Nolan's credit.

Miami wants him, having asked permission to interview him prior to his departure. Given that it is a parallel move, I am inferring that Nolan let it be known through back channels that he wanted out. This should not alarm you, as the directory of people who want to get away from Josh McDaniels appears to be thicker than Tiger's little black book.

by Raiderjoe :: Mon, 01/18/2010 - 10:34pm

Dont know about nolan but in general- no.
Miami biggest rival one win away form playing in super bwl in dolphins stadium. If not then old division rical (Cilts) going to play there. Better for Dolphins fans but still not good for them . Over in Nfc if Saints get to super bowl then Dolphins fans have to root for guy who their team was too dumb to sign four years ago. Thought D Culpepper was answer instead.

by BroncosGuy (not verified) :: Mon, 01/18/2010 - 10:57pm

Well, Joe has given a far more existentialist answer to the question, and I have little argument with it. Still, while there are plenty of reasons to be unhappy as a Dolphins fan, trading Pasqualoni for Nolan is not one of them.

by jebmak :: Mon, 01/18/2010 - 11:52pm

Gee thanks Joe. Thanks BroncosGuy.

by Danish Denver-Fan :: Tue, 01/19/2010 - 3:55am

Such a proud franchise, the Aberdeen Cilts.

by loneweasel (not verified) :: Mon, 01/18/2010 - 10:39pm


Remember the blind Denver homers before the season? or worse, when they were high as a kite during the fluke start?

by jebmak :: Mon, 01/18/2010 - 11:57pm

Remember at the beginning of the season when the Broncos wins o/u was 4.5 and almost everyone thought that they would crash and burn? I think that they exceeded expectations.

by loneweasel (not verified) :: Tue, 01/19/2010 - 12:48am

Remember who got those 6 fluky wins for Denver when neckbeard's prolific attack averaged about 15 points a game?

Hint: He just walked out the door.

Good luck exceeding expectations next year.

by jebmak :: Tue, 01/19/2010 - 1:39am

I don't care at all about the Broncos. I just thought the schadenfreude oddly placed against a team that did so much better than expected.

by loneweasel (not verified) :: Tue, 01/19/2010 - 1:54am

Ever thought about why a team that finished 8-8 in 2008 with a ton of injuries would be widely expected to win 4 games in 2009 in the first place?

McDaniel's 2008 offseason might prove to be the most disastrous in the history of professional football. Matt Millen has ever traded a 26-year old franchise quarterback and drafted three (3!) first round busts in one year.

by jebmak :: Tue, 01/19/2010 - 1:04pm

Fair enough.

by Rich Conley (not verified) :: Wed, 01/20/2010 - 4:02pm

While I think Cutler is good, he doesn't look like a franchise QB to me. He makes entirely too many mistakes.

by Johnny Bravo (not verified) :: Mon, 01/18/2010 - 10:48pm

Anything that makes the Broncos worse is a good move to me. Love it.

by dmstorm22 :: Tue, 01/19/2010 - 12:02am

Honestly, this might be the greatest parabolic coaching season ever. McD was excoriated for running the franchise-QB out of town. Then hailed as some Belichick/Lombardi/Walsh tryst lovechild after the 6-0 start. Then, he starts losing at a Rams-ian pace, he alienates their only other blue-chip player, benches him in a must-win, get's blown out by 20 at home to the Cheifs, and now he essentially axes the man that was probably more resposible than McD for the 6-0 start? Way to use up all the karma that the 6-0 start got you.

I thought the Broncos were going to be a 2-14 trainwreck. Was I really all that wrong?

by greybeard :: Tue, 01/19/2010 - 9:24pm

No, you missed by just 6 wins. Not much.

by Noah Arkadia :: Tue, 01/19/2010 - 12:32am

What a peculiar person. Sort of Bill Bellichik on speed.

by PatsFan :: Tue, 01/19/2010 - 12:42am

PFT (yeah, I know) claims Pees "is the most obvious candidate" to replace Nolan.

by DrewTS (not verified) :: Tue, 01/19/2010 - 1:04pm

I saw that. It kind of changes the whole spin on the "he's leaving for health reasons" that was originally said of the Pees situation in New England. If he takes another job right away, it'll be pretty clear that he left because the Patriots weren't going to bring him back.

by greybeard :: Tue, 01/19/2010 - 9:28pm

Usually taking a job right away means, someone has something better -at least in their opinion- lined up.
Given how bad Patriots were this year, relative to the talent they have on the roster, maybe he did not want to stay with the Patriots and with the "genius" and be blamed for everything that's gone bad whereas genius gets the credit for every good thing that happens to them.

by George N (not verified) :: Tue, 01/19/2010 - 1:37am

1) A healthy CHAMP BAILEY was the biggest improvement in Denver last season. If he was injured all year like in 2008, the Broncos would have ended up 5-11 or so. Conversely, if Champ was healthy in 2008, the Broncos would have made the playoffs, and Shanahan is not fired.

2) Drafting MORENO over ORAKPO will go down as one of the worst picks in Denver history. This is even considering that Moreno is certainly no bust. However Orakpo will be a Pro Bowl caliber player for a full decade.

3) Drafting ROBERT AYERS in the first round was another huge mistake, distinct from the blunder of not picking Orakpo. Note that Dumervil, a great player, is not versatile, he is a pure pass rusher. Dumervil needs to be paired with an OLB who is capable of pass coverage. Whereas Orakpo is is serviceable in pass coverage (he played 4-3 OLB this season), Ayers is utterly incapable because he is essentially a pure DE. Ayers can be Dumervil's backup and nothing more.

4) The Broncos ended up, in effect, using a #14 overall pick for ALPHONSO SMITH. Do you think the Patriots would ever trade a #14 overall pick for a second round pick?

5) Fine if you want to trade MARSHALL, but then why for crying out loud are you lowering his trade value on the last week of the season!

by MC2 :: Tue, 01/19/2010 - 10:55am

For some reason, this comment reminds me of the old Tecmo Bowl manual.

by tonic889 (not verified) :: Tue, 01/19/2010 - 1:25pm

It's because all the players names are IN CAPS.

by MC2 :: Tue, 01/19/2010 - 6:01pm

You are correct, sir.

by Big Woody (not verified) :: Tue, 01/19/2010 - 2:20pm

George N, I agree with points 1,4 & 5 (and as a Seahawks fan I am gleeful about 4). But, last April, Moreno might have been considered the safer pick as many thought that Orakpo could be another Golston. Ayers was billed as a prototype 3-4 DE needed to make that D work in Denver. Don't know if he will pan out. Too soon?

by sundown (not verified) :: Tue, 01/19/2010 - 2:36pm

It's one thing to clean house and bring in your own people but when you immediately start turning over your own guys you're asking for trouble. Nolan was McDaniels' very first hire, yet either they couldn't get along or Boy Wonder convinced himself he was wrong on that decision. Neither of those possibilities bodes well for the future.

by BroncosGuy (not verified) :: Tue, 01/19/2010 - 3:39pm

The Denver Post beat writer (Klis) is reporting that the two did not mesh; Nolan thought he would have more autonomy over the defense, and as the season wore on, McDaniels exerted more influence over the defensive game plan and limited Nolan's play-calling options.

by Eddo :: Tue, 01/19/2010 - 3:57pm

Considering the defense got worse as the year progressed, this seems like bad news for the Broncos.

by DrewTS (not verified) :: Tue, 01/19/2010 - 4:01pm

Point 1, from intro --
"the run defense plummeted from second (-18.2%) in Weeks 1-9 to 31st (11.3%) in the second half of the season."

Point 2, from your post --
"and as the season wore on, McDaniels exerted more influence over the defensive game plan and limited Nolan's play-calling options."

Are these related? And if so, did 1 cause 2, or did 2 cause 1?

by BroncosGuy (not verified) :: Tue, 01/19/2010 - 7:27pm

I don't think they are necessarily related. McDaniels wants to oversee every phase of the team, so not giving Nolan autonomy was more philosophical than performance-driven. Increased involvement on the D-side (and I'm only guessing here) was likely a function of McDaniels being more settled in and wanting to impart his own defensive philosophy. In other words, Nolan and McDaniels had philosophical differences from the start, but McDaniels became more assertive in making sure his philosophy was followed.

Did McDaniel's more assertive role cause the defense to regress? Maybe, maybe not. I think there is more than one variable at work contributing to the decline.

(Some speculated that McDaniels couldn't handle Nolan getting credit for the early success; again, I have no way of really knowing).

by Trogg Palin (not verified) :: Wed, 01/20/2010 - 1:09am

As a Denver fan, I can tell you that the vaunted schemes that Nolan implemented ran out of steam pretty quickly. It started with Rashard Mendenhall battering through them for 150 (+/-) yards, and kept tumbling downhill as the season went on, culminating in the immortal Chiefs running back ( Charles? )laughing his way to 260 yards. The pass defense rating was improved, because to win you merely had to run on them. The defense was a major reason why they couldn't get the one extra win that would have kept the Jets out of the playoffs. Not the only reason, of course, but the main one.
I don't blame all of this on Nolan; the defense was lined with journeymen up front, and he masked it the best he could to start the season, but water eventually finds it's own level.
In town, of course, McDaniels is blamed for everything this side of 9/11, and while he's bungled some things, I think he's become an easy target for the usual media blowhards ( sweet christ, Woody Paige has been writing here for 30 years ), and the usual FO clods. Bronco fans don't seem to realize what a mess this Broncos team was when Shanny was kicked to the curb. That 6-0 start was the worst thing that could happen because they just weren't that good.
I will admit, every time I read the phrase 'Jay Cutler is a franchise quarterback', I burst out laughing. But..but..he had a bad offensive line. Yes, that's why he threw 26 interceptions this season. Because of his offensive line.

by Kaveman :: Thu, 01/21/2010 - 11:21am

Bronco fans don't seem to realize what a mess this Broncos team was when Shanny was kicked to the curb.


Denver had 24.0% offensive DVOA in Shanahan's last season. 0.1% behind first place San Diego. Cutler had 1380 DYAR, good for 5th in the league. He, Brandon Marshall, Eddie Royal, Tony Scheffler, Ryan Clady, Chris Kuper, and Ryan Harris were all in their rookie contracts.

I thought it clear that Denver's offense was going to be top 5 for the next five years at least, and probably beyond. Plenty of time to get the D fixed.

So yeah. I guess this year was better for you? After "Shanny was kicked to the curb"?

I think I'm really going to enjoy watching the Redskins climb from mediocrity. And ignore the Broncos' descent into it.