Owner and general manager Jerry Jones had a productive first week of the offseason as the Dallas Cowboys agreed to terms with its three highest-ranking coaches — head coach Jason Garrett, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. Jones announced the moves on Thursday.
All were vital to the success of the Cowboys in 2014. But none will be more important to the team’s future — in 2015 and beyond — than Marinelli.
No disrespect to Garrett or Linehan. Garrett’s growth as a head coach is evident. He’s gotten this team to buy into his “process,” and the Cowboys are better for it. Linehan transitioned the Cowboys’ offense from a pass-first mentality to a balanced attack, and as long as Jones can keep the free agents from bolting (Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray, namely), Linehan should have no problems in 2015.
The defense is far from where the Cowboys need it to be to win a Super Bowl, which is why keeping Marinelli was so important.
But the defense is far from where the Cowboys need it to be to win a Super Bowl, which is why keeping Marinelli was so important — and his defense’s performance in 2014 was so impressive.
Last January, Jones replaced Monte Kiffin, the defensive coordinator he hired in 2013 to transition the Cowboys from a 3-4 formation to the 4-3 Cover 2 formation, with Marinelli. Kiffin presided over the worst defense in Cowboys history by yardage allowed, and the third-worst of all time. In retrospect, Kiffin’s luring Marinelli to join him in Dallas was the best thing Kiffin did for the franchise.
Before the Cowboys started the season, personnel moves hamstrung Marinelli. By training camp, DeMarcus Ware (Denver), Jason Hatcher (Washington) and Sean Lee (injured reserve) were all gone. Those were Dallas’ three best defensive players in 2013.
When the Cowboys started the regular season they had two Pro Bowl selections on their roster — defensive tackle Henry Melton and defensive end Anthony Spencer. That’s it. It would be fair to say that Jones and company handed Marinelli a bunch of guys and said, “figure something out.”
Marinelli figured something out, and to understand how you have to understand him. I have a little experience. Marinelli was the defensive line coach in Tampa Bay when I covered the Buccaneers in 2004-05. He left the following year to take over the Detroit Lions.
He was always great to talk to, but you understood as you asked him questions that he didn’t need fluff. I learned to get to the point with Marinelli and he, in turn, would give you good answers. Marinelli’s military background likely had something to do with it.
Buccaneers players respected him highly. He has the ear of the players in the Cowboys’ locker room, as his defensive players were unanimous in their desire to see Marinelli stay instead of return to his old stomping grounds in Tampa to work for Bucs head coach Lovie Smith.
This Cowboys defense adopted Marinelli’s no-frills, disciplined approach. Early in the season it was evident that their tackling in the open field had improved. To Marinelli, everything filters down from that fundamental. Tackle better, and your defense gets better.
He took a defense ranked No. 32 in the NFL in 2013 and turned it into the No. 19 unit in the NFL in 2014. He also turned it into a top 10 run-stopping unit. Now, that’s great improvement. But total yards don’t matter much to Marinelli. What he cares about are points allowed and turnovers created.
The Cowboys gave up 22.1 points per game, good for No. 16 in the NFL. Marinelli managed to help his unit shave off five points its 2013 average. But the biggest leap was turning the Cowboys into ball hawks.
The Cowboys created 31 turnovers in 2014, the second-most in the NFL. They created a turnover in 17 straight games and wrapped up the season with 16 turnovers in the final six games, during which they went undefeated in December and won their first playoff game in five years.
Losing Marinelli would have meant Jones would have had to hire a third coordinator in as many years. This unit needs continuity because it must re-sign Rolando McClain, integrate a healthy Lee, and deal with the inevitable help Jones will find on the open market in the form of free agents and draft picks. Those will all be tall tasks.
Cowboys fans can take some solace in knowing that Marinelli is under contract and has shown he’s more than up to the task.