He's got big shoes to fill

Mike Nolan: The Ravens' new defensive coordinator has a difficult task ahead of him - replacing Marvin Lewis.

Nfl Draft

April 18, 2002|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

Mike Nolan, the new caretaker of the Ravens' defense, is not so engrossed in his job that he can't appreciate the humor of his situation.

"Right now," said Nolan with a chuckle, "we'd be running a 2-4."

As in two defensive lineman and four linebackers, one fewer lineman than in the 3-4 formation Nolan plans to implement this year.

The Ravens released three starters for salary cap purposes and lost four others. With only 13 defensive players under contract going into this weekend's NFL draft, Nolan's task of replacing Marvin Lewis has become substantially more difficult.

A year after serving as the Ravens' receivers coach, Nolan starts his fourth stint as a defensive coordinator, and it could turn into his most pressure-filled. At its apex, the Ravens' defense drew comparisons to some of the greatest of all time a mere 15 months ago, and Lewis received his share of credit.

The Ravens have finished second in total defense the past three years, and if there is a significant drop-off, guess who will get the blame?

"The expectation level - they expect to be good," Nolan said.

Whether Nolan can live up to everybody's expectations for the defense has been the question since Ravens coach Brian Billick promoted him in February.

Although Nolan has 22 years of coaching experience (16 in the NFL) and is the son of a former professional football coach, his reputation took a major hit after a disastrous couple of seasons with the Washington Redskins.

Nolan took over the Redskins' defense in 1997. That season, his team allowed the eighth-fewest points in the NFL, and Nolan looked like he would soon be in line for a head coaching job.

But the next season started with a loss to the New York Giants in which Washington gave up 31 points. Opponents went on to score more than 30 points six times (more than 40 in three games) as the team finished 6-10. Nolan's defense gave up 421 total points.

New owner

A new and impatient owner named Daniel Snyder took over the next year, and things started out worse defensively. Opponents scored more than 30 points in five of the first nine games, and the team's run defense was nonexistent. Suddenly, so was Nolan's chance of becoming a head coach.

"The thing with Coach Nolan is that we had a lot of new guys come in on defense that year," Redskins safety Sam Shade said. "We had a lot of guys that hadn't played together on that team, so it took us a long time to jell."

For sure, Nolan was not highly regarded by Redskins management under Snyder's regime. His contract expired at the end of the 1999 season, and Nolan was done in Washington.

It did not matter that the Redskins rebounded over their last nine games (including playoffs) and allowed an average of just 14 points. "Once we got a group with the same guys on the field week after week, we played pretty good defense," said then-coach Norv Turner, who remained a Nolan supporter.

"The third year," Nolan recalled, "I never really hit it off with Daniel Snyder from the beginning.

"We statistically were very bad the first half of the season. We had young guys. There were a lot of things," he said. "We were getting pounded, even from within. Not just media pressure, but people from within were saying how bad we were."

Defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson was one of the critics immediately after Nolan's departure, saying the defense had no clear-cut definition of what it was about, and there was speculation many of his fellow linemen agreed.

Said Shade: "There were some things said by some of the guys up front along the lines that they weren't being allowed to attack and get up the field as much. I heard that for myself. But I don't have anything bad to say because that was one of my better years in that system.

"Once everybody realized, `This is what my job is, if I do it, we'll be successful,' once guys realized that, we took off as a defensive unit."

Through all the problems, the Redskins were still a botched snap away from playing the St. Louis Rams in the NFC title game in Nolan's last season. Washington has not been to the playoffs since Nolan left.

"If I'm not mistaken, the only time the Redskins have made the playoffs over the last 10 years was with Mike Nolan as the defensive coordinator," Billick said. "I've been in this business long enough to know that good coaches get caught in bad situations."

To his credit, those around Nolan say he offered up answers for the questions shot at him by the media and his employers during those final two years in Washington. At times, he said, he felt like crawling under the table and hiding. But such behavior wouldn't do for the son of a man whose father played for Tom Landry in Dallas, then went on to coach in San Francisco (1968-75) and New Orleans (1978-80).

Born in Baltimore

Dick Nolan confronted issues head-on, and his style rubbed off on his son. Mike was the only one of the Nolans' seven children who made a career in sports.

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