Make no mistake about it.
The loss of defensive end Anthony Spencer to season-ending and potentially career-threatening microfracture knee surgery is a huge setback for the Dallas Cowboys.
Spencer was the Cowboys’ best defensive player last season and his ability to transition from linebacker to defensive end was key to the team’s decision to move from the 3-4 to the 4-3 defense.
“It’s a setback for us,” owner and general manager Jerry Jones said succinctly, but not hopelessly.
As much as the Cowboys believed in Spencer’s ability to be a difference-maker, they have more faith in defensive line coach Rod Marinelli to find a solution.
That was Jones’ formula during the off-season and the start of training camp after hiring the highly respected Marinelli following the firing of Rob Ryan and new coordinator Monte Kiffin’s switch from the 3-4. Marinelli worked with Kiffin in Tampa Bay before stints as Detroit Lions head coach and the Chicago Bears’ defensive coordinator.
Jones had long known Marinelli’s reputation as the league’s best defensive line coach. But he’s still amazed what he has been able to do so far in Dallas — highlighted by the play of defensive end George Selvie, who has been exceptional in Spencer’s place the first three games of the season and remains the starter.
“He has exceeded [my expectations],” Jones said of Marinelli. “And that would have been hard to do because when I looked at our depth during the off-season right before we went to training camp, there were a couple of holes there. And all I did was picture in Rod Marinelli.”
Spencer missed all of the preseason and the season opener after undergoing arthroscopic surgery July 25. The situation was complicated by the loss of Tyrone Crawford, Spencer’s primary backup.
That’s when Marinelli began working his miracles up front, starting with Selvie, who was sitting at home when training camp began.
Selvie had zero starts and three sacks in 36 games the previous three years with St. Louis, Carolina and Jacksonville before being released by Tampa Bay in minicamp.
He has two sacks in three games this season.
“I can’t start on what I’ve learned from him,” Selvie said about Marinelli. “He’s a great coach. He knows the football game and he’s passionate about it. Having a coach who believes in you is a big deal.”
Marinelli’s miracle work is not just about Selvie.
Defensive end DeMarcus Ware was already one of the league’s top pass rushers. But defensive tackle Jason Hatcher is having a career year and defensive tackle Nick Hayden, an injury replacement for Jay Ratliff (groin, hamstring), has been another solid pickup off the streets after not playing football last year.
“He’s the best since I’ve been in the league,” Hayden said. “From teaching technique to the little details he has us paying attention to. He stays on top of this, and his demeanor as a defensive line coach is awesome.”
Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp, who played for Marinelli with the Buccaneers, is not surprised Marinelli is still working miracles.
“I had eight years with him, and it was the greatest eight years of my life,” Sapp said. “‘You become what you repeatedly do.’ He used to say it all the time.”
“He takes complicated things and makes it simple. … He always says, ‘Keep your eyes on your keys and follow. It will take you wherever you want to go. What you put into this game, you will definitely get out of it.’”
Marinelli is already working that motivation game with the members of the Cowboys’ defensive line, which he calls the fearsome foursome.
Hatcher is in his eighth year with the Cowboys and agrees that Marinelli is the best line coach he’s ever been around and credits him with a fast start to the season. Hatcher has three sacks in three games and needs just two more to surpass his career high.
“He taught me just to be an athlete, to be a basketball player,” Hatcher said. “A few days ago he called me and told me to act like I was dribbling the ball and to make a move and act like I was going to the bucket. It made a lot of sense to me.”
Marinelli is “a heck of a coach and you get better with it because he’s a great teacher,” Kiffin said.