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Dallas Cowboys coaching spotlight: Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli

He’s won a Super Bowl and gone 0-16. Just who is Rod Marinelli?

NFL: Dallas Cowboys Training Camp Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

After the 2017 season ended, Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett decided to make some wholesale changes to the structure of the Dallas Cowboys to avoid another disappointment, if 9-7 can really be called a disappointment. While offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli both remained with the team, much of the staff around them has changed. This series is meant to profile each coach, including the ones who stayed, and analyze how their presence will contribute to the 2018 Dallas Cowboys. Today, we are looking at the grizzled Vietnam vet who runs the defense, Hot Rod Marinelli. Be sure to check out our other profiles below:

Jason Garrett
Scott Linehan
Kellen Moore
Gary Brown
Sanjay Lal
Kyle Valero
Doug Nussmeier
Paul Alexander
Marc Colombo

Rod Marinelli is not your father’s football coach. He’s actually more like your grandfather’s football coach. When Marinelli first got into coaching, Tom Landry had just won his first Super Bowl with the Cowboys. Old soul is almost too accurate a descriptor for Marinelli.

When he took a defensive coordinator job with his high school alma mater, he had just returned to the United States after serving a year in the Vietnam War. From 1976 to 1995, Marinelli held a few jobs in the college football ranks, with stops at programs such as Utah State, Cal, Arizona State, and USC. In 1996, Marinelli went pro, becoming the defensive line coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Here, he met future coaching greats such as Tony Dungy, Lovie Smith, Monte Kiffin, and Herm Edwards. When Dungy was fired and Jon Gruden became the Buccaneers’ new head coach, Marinelli was retained alongside Kiffin.

In tandem with Kiffin, Marinelli learned the Tampa 2 defensive scheme, something that coaches like Pete Carroll, Gus Bradley, and Dan Quinn (and later, Kris Richard) used as inspiration to build their Legion of Boom defense in Seattle. The Tampa 2 defense was traditionally heavy on zone coverage, frequently employing Cover 2 concepts but adding the wrinkle of dropping the MIKE linebacker in coverage. The scheme also emphasized the defensive line’s ability to burst upfield and get in the backfield, either to disrupt the run or pressure the quarterback. This requires athletic defensive linemen who can shoot their assigned gap and shift the line of scrimmage. Additionally, the design of the run defense was to direct running backs to the weak side, where the WILL linebacker could stop the runner.

In 2002, this scheme came together with the Buccaneers personnel in a big way. Simeon Rice, Warren Sapp, and Booger McFarland wreaked havoc upfront, while Derrick Brooks dispensed of the running back routinely, and the secondary was anchored by Ronde Barber and John Lynch. The result was one of the best defenses in NFL history and a Super Bowl victory. Three years later, Marinelli was hired to become the Detroit Lions head coach, where he would make history by going 0-16 in 2008 and being promptly fired. From there, Marinelli reunited with Lovie Smith from 2009-2012 with the Chicago Bears. During his time there, the Bears defense was consistently one of the NFL’s best units. In 2012 particularly, Marinelli’s defense led the league in interceptions and takeaways, and only allowed third down conversions 35% of the time. Despite this success, Marinelli left the Bears when Smith was fired.

He then came to Dallas in 2013 as the defensive line coach to reunite with Kiffin, who had just been hired as the Cowboys’ new defensive coordinator. Kiffin and Marinelli were tasked with transitioning the Dallas defense back into a 4-3 base defense, something they hadn’t run since Bill Parcells took over in 2003. This change saw the emergence of Jason Hatcher, who had moved to the 3 technique tackle spot, as he tallied 11 sacks. Overall, though, the defense ranked dead last in the league, which led to Kiffin’s demotion and Marinelli becoming the defensive coordinator while still coaching the defensive line.

When Marinelli became the defensive coordinator, he made a few schematic changes. While Kiffin had more or less run the same style of defense he did in Tampa Bay, with a large majority of coverages being cover 2 zone concepts, Marinelli recognized that this style wasn’t as effective in the new age of football. More than that, the Cowboys three best cornerbacks - Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, and Orlando Scandrick - were all press cover corners, not zone corners. Marinelli adapted the scheme to feature more man coverage with press concepts to take advantage of this. Additionally, Marinelli began to run more Cover 1 and hidden Cover 3 plays, routinely lining up with a single-high safety. Part of this was due to the presence of Barry Church, who was typically used as the box safety on these plays and was essentially an extra linebacker on run plays.

The challenges for Marinelli in the 2014 season were soon stacked high, though. Ware and Hatcher both left the team, and Sean Lee injured his knee in OTA’s, which would keep him out for the whole year. Nevertheless, Marinelli was able to cobble together a no-name defense that supplemented a superb offense during a 12-4 playoff run, cut short in the playoffs only by a no-longer-controversial Dez Bryant catch. The defense ended up finishing 14th in the league in overall defense, and they were the seventh best pass defense that year.

The success of the defense despite lacking playmakers was largely predicated on the offensive approach: behind DeMarco Murray, Dallas ran the ball down the throat of the opposing defenses and dominated the time of possession, which in turn meant the defense was on the field a lot less. This, and a deep rotation on the defensive line, kept players fresh and gave them the ability to exert maximum effort for only a few plays. This marked the formulation of the Cowboys identity, with a ground-and-pound offense and a grit and grind defense, which matched the personality of Marinelli. The 2015 season brought some significant changes to the defense: with the presence of McClain, Marinelli moved Lee to the WILL linebacker spot, which freed him up from taking so many punishing hits from linemen. As a result, Lee started in 14 games and led the team in tackles. DeMarcus Lawrence, who had missed his rookie year with an injury, recorded 8 sacks, which gave hope that he would eventually become a premier pass rusher (spoiler alert: he did).

The next two years saw the rise of several players who have become key cogs in the defense, including Maliek Collins, Anthony Brown, Jaylon Smith, Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, Xavier Woods, and David Irving. This influx of young talent resulted in some uneven performances from the defense, but in tandem with the methodical offensive approach, it worked. Still, after the 2017 season, Marinelli reportedly considered retirement. Instead chose to return and brought in Kris Richard as the defensive passing game coordinator/defensive backs coach. Many believe that 2018 will be Marinelli’s last season, with the idea that Richard takes over as the defensive coordinator.

Whether or not that’s true, it can’t be denied that Marinelli’s impact to this team has been huge. The transition to the 4-3 defense was never going to be easy, and losing so many impact players only made it harder, but Marinelli has thrived in this team’s approach and, in most cases, gotten the most out of his players. Moreover, his willingness to adapt his defensive scheme to his players and the changing times has helped ease along the youth movement for this old timer. At 68 years of age, he is definitely an old soul, but that hasn’t deterred the players from loving him, as Sean Lee has expressed:

“I think Rod’s a Hall of Fame coach who we have thrived under when we play his system the right way,” Lee said, via ESPN insider Todd Archer. “And he’s a guy that we love. He’s a guy that has taught me a ton of football. I think we are as a defense, if you look at the last four games, when we have had everybody, we have a defense that can be a championship defense.”

Anyone who watched Amazon’s All or Nothing series this year also knows about the Marinelli Cut of film sessions. He takes hilarious clips and videos from the internet and ties in football analogies to them. For instance, going into the Packers game in 2017, Marinelli showed a video of an animal forcefully kicking someone several yards away. Speaking over the laughter of the players, Marinelli explains that he wants his guys to be the animal and treat the offense like the person in the video. His ability to remind the players that this game can still be fun is part of why he’s so well-liked.

More than that, Marinelli has a knack for nicknames, something that his players seem to enjoy a lot. By my estimation, he came up with the greatest nickname of all time when he chose to name Nick Hayden the Golden Cock. While these are all fun, Marinelli has also inspired the defense with nicknames, too. Crawford explained this in reference to Marinelli naming their 2016 defense “The Mighty Orphans.”

“Coach Marinelli always has something he comes up with every year,” Crawford said. “This year it’s ‘The Mighty Orphans.’ It’s kind of how we live, the mentality of being treated with less [respect]. We’re Rocky, not the Russians. We don’t get the high-class treatment, but we get the job done.

“He was explaining to us that he read the book about the ‘Orphans,’ them starting a football team and having a couple of guys go to the NFL. He talked about the way they played because they were orphans, and the mindset they had. He’s just trying to instill that type of stuff in us.”

While his tenure in Dallas hasn’t yet been as stellar as his time in Tampa, Marinelli’s presence and schematic prowess helped the Cowboys defense undergo a facelift and come out of it looking good. Players such as Lawrence, Irving, Collins, Lee, Smith, Awuzie, Lewis, and Woods have thrived under him, and his ability to turn other teams’ trash into productive role players (see: Mincey, Selvie, Melton, even Irving) has instilled a certain type of culture into this defensive unit. The addition of Richard to this coaching staff will set this defense up for success, both in 2018 and long term, but Marinelli is the guy who started it all. And for now, at least, he’s the guy calling the plays, and Cowboys fans should be thankful for that.

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