Falcons' Nolan deserves a pass for this year

December, 30, 2013
12/30/13
1:05
AM ET
After a 4-12 season, we should expect the Atlanta Falcons to make some changes in order to return to the postseason. But those changes won't involve either of the coordinators.

The Falcons' decision over the weekend to give defensive coordinator Mike Nolan a two-year contract extension, as a source confirmed to ESPN.com late Sunday night, showed that coach Mike Smith isn't pointing fingers for his team's demise -- at least not at his most important assistants. Smith already said he was glad to have offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter in the fold moving forward after Koetter flirted with Boise State.

[+] EnlargeMike Smith and Mike Nolan
AP Photo/Tony AvelarNews of a contract extension for Mike Nolan (right) reflects the esteem in which coach Mike Smith holds his defensive coordinator.
In Nolan's case, Smith obviously understood that the defense's demise was beyond control. Nolan lost two integral parts early on when versatile linebacker/defensive end Kroy Biermann suffered a season-ending Achilles injury and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon was sidelined seven games due to a Lisfranc foot sprain.

Nolan was forced to work with two undrafted rookie starters at linebacker in Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu, although both players exceeded expectations. Nolan also had two rookie cornerbacks at season's end with Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, although Trufant played like a veteran throughout. And Nolan had inexperienced pass-rushers in second-year player Jonathan Massaquoi and rookies Malliciah Goodman and Stansly Maponga.

Nolan told me that nobody, including himself, wants to hear the excuse of being too young. But the inexperience contributed to the Falcons surrendering 41 plays of 25-plus yards.

I talked to Smith last week about the defensive woes, and his response told me he was more than willing to give Nolan a pass this season.

"We were playing a lot of young players, and when you have young players you want to make sure that they have a good understanding of what you're trying to do, and you don't have the ability to have the multiplicity that you would like to have when you're playing young players," Smith said. "And I think multiplicity is important in game-planning. When you don't have the ability to play multiple coverages and multiple fronts, it does limit you somewhat."

Nolan definitely is a coach the players respect. You can tell by the way they interact with him at practice. It's as if they think he's that old guy who's cool and hip.

Did the Falcons make the right move in extending Nolan's contract? Time will tell. He's a solid coach, in my opinion, and dialed up some nice blitzes the last two games. And once the Falcons get back some of their injured players and upgrade the defensive line, Nolan probably should enjoy more success with different defensive looks. You can't blame him for the countless missed tackles and repeated mental mistakes.

At the same time, Nolan should feel the pressure coming off this season. The Falcons had the league’s worst third-down defense and finished tied for 27th in total defense. They also surrendered more than six yards per play, which is unacceptable.

But it's not as if Nolan is incompetent. He just needs a full complement.

Vaughn McClure

ESPN Atlanta Falcons reporter

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