clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Meet the man who fixed the Dallas Cowboys defense

New, comments

Injuries, attrition and a historically bad output in 2013 all pointed to another down year for the Dallas defense. Instead, they're a top-10 unit and a big part of the team's 6-1 start. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli provided SB Nation with some insight in a one-on-one interview.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Rod Marinelli arrived home late Wednesday night after another taxing day of molding his Dallas Cowboys defense. The end of a day for Marinelli sounds a lot like the beginning of one. He would work later into the night at home. Yet, his voice over the phone was still packed with sunrise-like verve.

He keeps managing this zest through 65 years of life, 44 years of marriage and 42 years of coaching.

When you talk to him about coaching longevity, he talks about the privilege. When you ask him about being a Vietnam War Army veteran, he says he just leaves that "where it should be," despite the fact that his bark and his blueprint as a defensive coordinator are in part woven through that experience.

Talk to Marinelli about growing up in Rosemead, Calif., about coaching under John Robinson at USC (1995) and under Tony Dungy with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1996 through 2001) and he tells you less about the offensive mind of the first and the defensive mind of the second and focuses on the men, their messages, their methods. So, little wonder with this Dallas defense that Marinelli is coaching the man first and the player second. That he believes helping to develop a good man is how you get "a heck of a player."

Teach, teach, teach. Develop, develop, develop.

"The NFL is such an emotional game," Marinelli said. "You build a whole man. You build a tough one. They are invested. I am invested. They reflect who I am."

This exemplifies the fire in Rod Marinelli:

"I am becoming the head coach in Tampa in 1996 and I need a good defensive coach and line coach," Dungy said. "I talk to our scouts. They say you've got to meet this guy at USC. I call him. He says, `I can pick you up tomorrow at 5 a.m.' He did. And we talked for six hours about football and life. He basically conducted the interview. I was sold. We would have a cast of characters in Tampa. They all responded to him."

Marinelli has never been too concerned about walls tumbling. He just blows the roof off.

Marinelli

Photo via Getty Images

It's what he is doing with the Dallas defense, one selected before the season to be all doomsday in the worst way, all dark and bleak. The Dallas defense last season allowed 6,645 yards -- the most pitiful in the league and in Cowboys history the pitifullest.

And this time around there was no DeMarcus Ware. The All-Pro end bolted to the Denver Broncos. There was no Sean Lee. That skillful linebacker tore the ACL in his left knee in late May and was lost for the season. There were more big losses for the season, including injured cornerback Morris Clairborne. There appeared to be more losses than distinct additions all around for this defense.

Marinelli was named Dallas defensive coordinator in the offseason. He said head coach Jason Garrett just told him he was it. And that was that.

Dallas this season has risen to third in the NFC and ninth in the NFL in scoring defense. Marinelli has taken what many personnel gurus would describe as "a bunch of guys'' and helped turn them into a difference-making group. Dallas is 6-1 after finishing 8-8 with no playoffs in each of the last three seasons. The Cowboys seek more ascension when they host Washington (2-5) on Monday night.

Marinelli preaches pursuit to the ball, flying to the ball, gang tackling, stripping the ball, intensity, outhitting opponents, playing low and fast and hard. Becoming harder, tougher men on the field. Swarm. Do your job. Coach ‘em up.

"It starts with belief," Marinelli said. "You have a standard for the players and a standard that is non-negotiable. I reflected on my past and we moved ahead one snap at a time. Doing that play as well as you can and then doing it again and again.

"I didn't say a lot to them about all of the negative talk and the players we didn't have. You go about coaching the next guy really hard and really well. If you start thinking about those other things and talking about it a lot, you can lose guys. Create competition. Be very direct. Talk about what can be. What happens a lot of times in football and in life is coaches and others put ceilings on people on how far they can go. That this or that is only what they can be. I think: BLOW THE ROOF OFF! Let's just see how far you go."

He also has had plenty of time to ponder 2008, the worst football season of his life. The prime example of how in 42 years of coaching, in high school and college before reaching the NFL for good in 1996, that peaks and valleys roll. And how to escape the valleys becoming defining.

As head coach of the Detroit Lions, Marinelli's team went 0-16 in 2008. No team before or in the time after sunk so low since the league employed a 16-game schedule in 1978.

"The biggest question for me is what did I gain from that experience?" Marinelli asked. "Everything I believed in 100 percent about football, it wasn't working and it was attacked daily. I really got tested. In the end, I was able to strengthen my beliefs. It made me stronger. I just believed more."

Marinelli was 10-38 in three seasons with the Lions in his only head coaching chance, but he is flourishing now as the Dallas defensive coordinator because he has mastered the art of climbing mountains, Dungy said.

"Rod's dedication to the task, to fundamentals, to details, to hard work and doing it together has won out," Dungy said. "It's not about being exciting or being exotic. It's about his single-mindedness. That is pure Rod Marinelli. It doesn't matter about 2008 or who is not there with the Cowboys defense now or last year or 6-1 now. What matters is what you do next. That is the brilliance of it. He has convinced that defense of it. To him it is all the same thing. He does not approach any of it differently. He will try to help this team reach 7-1. If he had another game to coach in Detroit in 2008 he would try to be 1-16. Climbing mountains."

Marinelli joined the Cowboys last season as a defensive line coach. This season when he was promoted to coordinator he replaced Monte Kiffin. Marinelli worked under Kiffin in Tampa Bay and under him last year in Dallas. Now Marinelli is boss and the seasoned, respected Kiffin must follow.

That could have been a minefield. Marinelli would not let it.

But he gives it all back to Kiffin.

"I have a great background with coach Kiffin," Marinelli said. "He handled it in a terrific way. It's tough. But it was all about our football team, the organization, about the players. I just think Monte Kiffin has helped make it work. He loves football. You think of all the things he has accomplished. But this is one of the brightest spots for him. Because he has shown everyone what a true professional he is. First class."

Photo via Getty Images

Marinelli says his defense is modeled off the old Tampa 2 scheme, but plays a mixture of man and zone and features variety. He said his secondary, led by cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Orlando Scandrick, was more talented and capable than most realized. His defense plays plenty of man coverage and that requires confidence, Marinelli said, adding both corners have it aplenty.

Washington head coach Jay Gruden said of the entire Dallas defense: "They are playing with a lot of confidence and confidence can do wonders for a team. That is what we are trying to instill in our players.''

The emergence of middle linebacker Rolando McClain and the steady rise of captain and linebacker Justin Durant have made a huge impact, Marinelli said. And he credits tackle Tyrone Crawford for his "great motor."

This defense has not been spectacular in creating sacks or touchdown returns or any other showy defensive numbers. It has complemented Dallas' extravagant running game (back DeMarco Murray's league-leading, record-breaking start) and quarterback Tony Romo's direction of an offense that frequently keeps the ball longer than opponents. The Dallas defense, thus, is often rested and asked to do more in fewer situations just like it has been asked to do more without marquee names.

One of those names, however, should return from a broken foot suffered in July when the Arizona Cardinals visit in Week 9. Dallas is anxiously awaiting rookie end DeMarcus Lawrence from Boise State, their second-round pick last May, to see what sizzle he can bring. The hope and plan is plenty.

The Dallas defense is quick and fast, and it is young. Only one starter is 30 years old (end Jeremy Mincey), only one is 29 (Durant), two are 28 (tackle Nick Hayden and Carr), two are 27 (end George Selvie and Scandrick), two are 26 (free safety Barry Church and linebacker Bruce Carter), two are 25 (McClain and strong safety J.J. Wilcox) and one is 24 (Crawford). That is an impressive and enviable NFL defensive talent in its prime.

Marinelli said the Cowboys have collected "some physical, tough guys."

Every day he strives to make them more of both. To not worry about any opponent. To be most concerned with "us." How they practice, how they play, how they execute. Focus on us, he insists.

"The guys do it together," Marinelli said. "Morale is the No. 1 thing in this league. We try to play 22 guys. That brings a certain chemistry. Nobody is so overtaxed. They play better. It is a work in progress every day."

And so is Marinelli, even after all of his enduring seasons.

Maybe 42 seasons is not nearly enough of blowing the roof off. How about 42 more? He laughs.

"I'm gonna try," he said.