Nolan's departure from Denver is a stunner

January, 18, 2010
1/18/10
9:22
PM ET
Mike Nolan is out as Denver’s defensive coordinator. Now, that is a "wow" move.

Last week’s departures of offensive line coach Rick Dennison and running backs coach Bobby Turner, who took promotions with Houston and Washington, respectively, were newsy because both men had long Denver runs. But they weren’t totally unexpected. Neither Dennison nor Turner were Josh McDaniels’ guys. They were Mike Shanahan’s guys. So, a change was natural.

[+] EnlargeMike Nolan
AP Photo/Jeff ChiuMike Nolan was behind the Broncos' switch to a 3-4 defensive alignment.
But Nolan was one of McDaniels’ first hires when he took over in Denver last year. Nolan was hired essentially the same day McDaniels. They seemed like a perfect fit. Nolan had head-coaching experience to help the 33-year-old McDaniels out, and he was an expert in the 3-4 defense, which McDaniels runs.

Nolan’s first season as McDaniels’ coordinator worked very well. Nolan took a unit that was a work in progress and made it a solid unit. Denver finished seventh in the NFL in overall defense with a below average front seven. When Denver started 6-0, the defense was tremendous. The defense had some issues and Denver nosedived, finishing with an 8-8 record. Still, it was a solid unit for much of the season.

The presence of Nolan seemed like one of McDaniels’ top building blocks heading into 2010. Then, seemingly out of the blue, came Monday’s announcement. The Broncos characterized the decision as a mutual parting.

That means that the team had some role in this. Why?

I talked to some folks in the know and they said that McDaniels and Nolan didn’t necessarily not get along. It was that the two simply decided to move apart.

Nolan will be fine. Miami is already interested in him. But what about Denver?

The Broncos have to go in a new direction. You would think McDaniels is going to stick to his NFL roots and keep the 3-4 defense. Coordinators for a 3-4 defense can be difficult to find because there are less coaches who specialize in the scheme than coaches who teach the more traditional 4-3 defense.

Former New England defensive coordinator Dean Pees could be a candidate. He and McDaniels worked together in New England. Pees recently said he will pursue other opportunities and allow his contract to expire. He knows the 3-4 and he knows McDaniels well, so this could be a seamless transition.

This news can’t be great for many Denver players. This will be the fifth defensive coordinator in five seasons. Shanahan had three different coordinators in his final three years, and McDaniels will now have two defensive coordinators in his first two seasons in Denver.

This hire has to work out. The unit needs stability.

This is also yet another move that puts pressure on McDaniels, not that he cares. If the Denver defense takes a step back in 2010 after the fast success under Nolan, McDaniels will be criticized. But like with so many decisions in his first year in Denver, McDaniels does what he feels is necessary, no matter how unexpected.

The parting of ways with Nolan is another example.

Bill Williamson | email

ESPN Oakland Raiders reporter

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