Coach’s Corner: Doug Nussmeier on Why Tight Ends “Are the Second Quarterbacks on the Team”
New Cowboys’ tight end coach Doug Nussmeier faces a challenge this season: taking a position group that lost the team’s all-time receptions leader, Jason Witten, and filling the void left by Witten with a bevy of young players eager to make their mark in the NFL.
Nussmeier, a former NFL quarterback, has spent the past 17 seasons as a Quarterbacks Coach or Offensive Coordinator at both the college and professional levels. This is his first year to coach tight ends. He took time following the final day of OTA practices to talk about his transition, as well as the Cowboys’ depth at tight end.
Q: There’s an old football axiom that, because tight ends have to run routes in the passing game as well as pass protect, that they are the second-smartest players on the team behind the quarterbacks. Is that really true?
NUSSMEIER: We talk about that in our room. We are the second quarterback on the field. We’re tied to the running game. We’re tied to the passing game. We’re part of pass-protection as blockers. We handle ‘hots’. We block in the run game. We have to have a great knowledge base of the whole game, not just one facet of the offense.
Q: After playing quarterback for 5 seasons in the NFL, plus playing in the Canadian Football League, your background is at the quarterback position. And since you’ve become a coach, you’ve been either an offensive coordinator or a quarterbacks coach. What’s it like to now be working with tight ends?
NUSSMEIER: It’s been great. Obviously, any time you have the chance to focus on one position, it’s different from before when I had to look at the big picture and the quarterback and how the whole offense is coming together. It’s been nice to focus on one position and watch all the little things like footwork, hat placement, hand placement. It’s a wonderful experience and great organization. And I can’t say enough about working with two great offensive minds like Jason Garrett and Scott Linehan. It’s been refreshing.
Q: When you accepted the Cowboys’ job as tight ends coach, Jason Witten was still on the roster. Now that he’s retired, what is your challenge as a coach? You no longer have a 15-year veteran to rely upon.
NUSSMEIER: When you have that kind of player in Witten, there aren’t many of them. You’re talking about a one-of-a-kind Hall of Famer. To come into this situation, you could bounce a lot of things off of Jason. You could ask, ‘How did we evolve to this route? Why do we run this play this way?’ With a younger group, you don’t have as much of a resource book. So, we’re having to build with the young guys as we go. But like I said, I’m impressed by their work ethic and their want-to.
Q: With Witten retired, Geoff Swaim — who has played in only 28 games in his first three NFL seasons — has the most experience of all the Cowboys’ tight ends.
NUSSMEIER: When you look at our room, there’s not a lot of years of experience. So, Geoff is the veteran guy in the room. He’s done a nice job of leading. I’m real excited about the room. There’s a sense of urgency. They’re engaged, their eager. We’ve got a long, long way to go but the work ethic is there.
But Geoff has been around a couple years now and he has a good idea of what we’re doing. With Paul (Alexander, new offensive line coach) coming in, we’re adding some new things with (blocking) technique and those kinds of things. But Geoff does have more of a resource base than the other guys. We have two rookies, plus Blake (Jarwin) being in his second year, and Rico (who still hasn’t played in a regular season game). Geoff brings the veteran presence into the room.
Everybody seems to focus on ‘Well, nobody has starts, nobody has played too much’. But every player has to start a game at some point in time or play his first snap. I don’t look at it as a negative. I think it’s exciting for the coach and the player and for everybody.
It’s interesting when they take that first play. It’s real. You find out a lot about the player.
Q: One of your young guys that you mentioned, second-year player Blake Jarwin, has an opportunity for a lot more playing time this season. What has stood out to you during these offseason practices in regards to Jarwin?
NUSSMEIER: I think Blake’s done a really good job. He has a tremendous skill set in the receiving department. In regards to blocking, he’s also done a good job of playing with better pad level and leverage. He’s not the biggest guy. He doesn’t have the most mass. So it’s important that he works on techniques like hand-placement.
Q: Jarwin began his college career at Oklahoma State as a wide receiver before switching positions and becoming a tight end. How does the skill set he learned as a college wide receiver manifest itself on the NFL practice field at the tight end position?
NUSSMEIER: His background in the passing game works to his advantage. He’s a very athletic guy. And it’s not easy to make a position change. You talk about the character, he’s a great, great kid. He wants to be great and he’s willing to do whatever it takes. When you have that type of player, you take his skill set and find a fit for him so he has the opportunity to play.
Q: Rico Gathers, who is now entering his third season but missed all of last year with a concussion, was asked about how he has improved as a blocker. He talked about the changes now that the Cowboys have a new offensive line coach, Paul Alexander. How much have things changed, technique-wise, for Rico and Blake and Geoff? They are holdovers from previous seasons.
NUSSMEIER: You start everything from scratch from base 1 and that’s important, especially with younger players. You can’t assume that we know anything. We have to learn together and grow together. So, we go back to walking-before-we-start-running. First we walk, then we jog, then we run.
Q: Even though the young guys are competing with each other for coveted roster spots, do you see a lot of cooperation?
NUSSMEIER: Definitely. We’ve talked about that from day 1. It’s good competition and everybody is behind whoever is on the field whether it’s one, two or three guys, whatever set we’re in. They’ve done a really good job of competing with each other, but the right kind of competition.
Every day is going to be a learning curve, and that curve will be even steeper on certain days as we work on different things. In the final on-field day of OTAs, we worked on 2-minute and 4-minute offense. Some days we’re in ‘heavy’ personnel (extra blockers) where we’re using 3-tight end sets.
Q: Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan has added elements to the offense the past couple of seasons to utilize Dak Prescott’s skill set, including things that are normally seen in college football. That’s something a lot of NFL teams are doing: bringing elements of college ball into the NFL. You’ve spent the past 13 seasons in college football at powerhouse programs like Alabama, Michigan, Florida, and Washington. And you’ve worked previously with Scott on his staff with the NFL’s St Louis Rams. Is Scott relying on your recent background to bring more college elements to the Cowboys’ offense this season?
NUSSMEIER: There is some translation about what started in college moving into the NFL, the RPO (run/pass option) type of things that people talk about. Hopefully with my background in college football, I can bring some knowledge in that area. I don’t want to divulge anything strategy-wise, but when you look at this football team and what they’ve done with Dak and Zeke, running the football has been a strength. You want to add little pieces here-and-there, but you also want to stay with your foundation.