The 2014 Dallas Cowboys season will likely rest in the hands of one man - defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. That may be a little over the top, as we all know it takes much more than one man for an NFL team to thrive. But when all is said and done, how much Rod Marinelli can get out of this defense will likely have the biggest effect on the Cowboys final record.
On offense, the Cowboys are loaded as long as Tony Romo's back holds up. (So yes, you could make the case that Tony Romo's back is the key component of the 2014 season). The offensive line was much-improved last year, to the point that it was being ranked among the Top-10 in the league by several metrics. The addition of Zack Martin only strengthens that unit. DeMarco Murray is a very capable back when healthy, and he should have some backup help this year. The Cowboys receiving game of Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams and Jason Witten can compete with anybody's. The offense is going to score points.
Special teams looks good, too. Dan Bailey and Dwayne Harris lead a unit that is quite capable of winning that phase of a football game.
The defense? One only needs to look at 2013 to see why it's the Cowboys biggest issue. The other day we looked at some potential reason the defense could be much improved this season even though losing Sean Lee, DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher would argue against it. One of the reasons:
5. Monte Kiffin has a long history of great defenses, but it just may have been the game has passed him by. Rod Marinelli had great defenses in Chicago as recently as a few years ago. The move to Marinelli will strengthen the defense.
And this is the key overall. Dallas has been constrained by the salary-cap in what they could do to improve the defense. So they went ahead and signed a bunch of middling/inexperienced talents along the defensive line (excepting Henry Melton). They are trying to do what they can to limit injuries - that is what really killed them last year - but it's never a certainty that can happen. So this year, they have signed a lot of bodies along the defensive line and hope that Marinelli can "pull a Selvie" with a few. Yup, that should be a term now for the Cowboys defensive line under Marinelli - "pull a Selvie", as in grab a player off the NFL scrap heap and turn him into a legitimate player.
"Definitely I sat back and said I had a pretty good year, but having a coach like Rod [Marinelli], he said I could've had a better year," said Selvie, who also had 39 tackles, seven tackles for loss and 22 quarterback pressures.
"He showed me all my bad plays and said, ‘Look at how many plays you were that close to getting if you did this.' I definitely take that into consideration and work on the things I did wrong."
Can that happen again with players like Terrell McClain or Jeremy Mincey?
Then there is the secondary. When I wrote above that the game might have passed Monte Kiffin by, one thing that could be implied from that was his slowness in recognizing what his players could and couldn't do, and adjusting the scheme to that. The Cowboys cornerbacks are built for man coverage, yet they found themselves in zone too often. It turned into a disaster. This year, Marinelli will look to change that.
Marinelli used more single-high safety looks while with the Chicago Bears, than two deep safeties. He plans on allowing Carr, Scandrick and Claiborne to play more man in 2014.
"These guys are really good man corners," Marinelli said. "They can go up and get you and press you. They really add something to the defensive package."
Bears cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings made the Pro Bowl under Marinelli, but their skill set is different. "They were solid," Marinelli said. "They were good, but they were really good Cover 2 guys and physical, but they could play man also. These guys are like them a lot. They're really good outside man cover (guys)."
Last year Carr and Claiborne asked to play more man coverage but they didn't get to play it as much as they wanted. And they did not play it well enough to inspire confidence in the coaches to use more man coverage.
"We have to go out during practice and stuff like that and show those guys we're able to come back to the line constantly and line up man-to-man constantly, each and every play, to give those guys some comfort in us," Claiborne said. So far in the organized team activities, Claiborne said the Cowboys have played more man. "We've got three good corners that can go up and play with anybody," Claiborne said. "When you have those types of weapons on your team, you have to use them. I don't know how much man or what we'll actually be in, but I know we'll be in a good majority of it."
That's two of the three major position groups on defense that Marinelli will try and use his coaching magic to correct. The third group, the linebackers, we'll have to wait and see. He needs to find a replacement for Sean Lee, and he needs Bruce Carter to suddenly "get it" and let his athleticism take over.
If the Cowboys are going to succeed in 2014, most of that success will come from the work of Marinelli. Even Troy Aikman agrees, even though he's not as optimistic as some of us.
"The defense is going to be better. They can’t possibly be as bad or worse than a year ago, so it’s going to be better," Aikman said Tuesday on ESPN 103.3 FM’s "Afternoon Show with Cowlishaw and Mosley."
"Is it going enough? It’s hard for me envisioning that to be the case with the injury Sean Lee being out for the season and DeMarcus Ware [gone]. Even though he battled through injuries and was limited last year, he’s one of those guys that an offense has to concern themselves with. I know that as a quarterback whenever we played an opponent it was, ‘OK, who do we have to focus on?’ and ‘Who do we have to neutralize?’ either a great pass-rusher or avoiding somebody in the passing game. I don’t know who that would be with Dallas right now and say, ‘Wow, we have to concern ourselves with this guy.’"
"I think the world of Rod Marinelli," Aikman said. "He’ll get the most out of whatever that defense has to give. I just don’t know if they can give enough to give this team a chance to be as good as they want to be."