In 2013 the Dallas Cowboys defensive unit was terrible. The words 'historically bad' got thrown around quite a bit as the unit failed to stop one opposing offense after another. The performance was bad enough that last year's defensive coordinator, the legendary Monte Kiffin, has been replaced by his former defensive line coach and friend Rod Marinelli. The new coordinator has his hands full in 2014.
Coach Marinelli faces a herculean task as he attempts to build a defense without the departed DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher. The challenge has been compounded with the season-ending injury suffered by middle linebacker and defensive captain Sean Lee. Still, it is a job which must go on, and Marinelli is responding like the Marine that he is. He is ready to adapt, improvise, and overcome. In fact, he relishes the challenge. Both he and his players enter 2014 with a chip on their shoulders.
"I think there’s something to prove a little bit, not something to prove from last year, but there are some guys coming here off the street with something to prove. There are some guys in contract years with something to prove. There are some guys coming out saying, ‘I want to be a better player,’ who have something prove. - Rod Marinelli
Many of Marinelli's charges have a lot to prove. For starters there is Morris Claiborne. The former first-round draft pick entered the NFL amid hype that he was the best cornerback prospect since Hall of Famer Deion Sanders. He has yet to show any signs of being worthy of such accolades. Claiborne is joined by another under-performing high-round draft selection, linebacker Bruce Carter, who has struggled despite playing in a defense that is highly suited to his style of play. Both men are trying to prove they are the players that the scouts thought they would be when they came out of the collegiate ranks. This season could be a make or break point for both men, as far as their careers in Dallas are concerned.
Two defensive linemen, both of whom could change the character of the Cowboys defense, are attempting to rebound from serious injuries. Anthony Spencer and Henry Melton are both former Pro Bowl selections who are on "prove it" deals with the Cowboys. Both will be looking to show that they can still play the game at a high level. They will be joined by third-year lineman Tyrone Crawford in trying to rebound from the impact of a season ending injury in 2013. Crawford will be looking to "make his bones" as a professional football player.
Veteran safety Barry Church, coming off of his best season as a professional, faces a different challenge. He will be looked at to assume the leadership role that Sean Lee normally would fill. The defense will take its tone from the way Church is able to fill his expanded role this season. After Lee went down last year, it was the former Toledo Rocket who stepped up and led the defense, such as it was, and now he will be given an opportunity to prove that it was not a fluke.
The many challenges that the Dallas defense will face are plentiful, but challenge equals opportunity. 2014 is a time when an opportunistic player can rise up and assert himself to make a significant difference. The question is going to be who, if anyone, will take advantage? Coach Marinelli knows exactly what it will take for them to be successful.
"The first thing you do is you take it as coaches and players and you take accountability for it," Marinelli said. "And no excuses. Now we look forward. Now it’s about the expectations of this group and with expectations you have to execute. It’s that simple. That simple, yet that hard."