The Dallas Cowboys’ defense doesn’t look like much on paper.
Ranked last in the league a year, the Cowboys have little to show in terms of reinforcements for 2014.
They signed former Pro Bowl defensive tackle Henry Melton, who is trying to regain his dominant form after season-ending knee surgery in 2013.
That’s it. That’s the list as far as proven performers go.
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And that’s before the recent injury to the player with the biggest upside — rookie second-round pick DeMarcus Lawrence, who will miss eight to 12 weeks with a fractured foot.
And when you consider the departures of Pro Bowlers such as DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher and the season-ending knee surgery to middle linebacker Sean Lee, optimism should be fleeting.
But that’s not how it works with this defense, led by new coordinator Rod Marinelli, a former Marine tunnel rat and Vietnam veteran who knows no fear and eats challenges for breakfast.
“Any time you are in a leadership role, you are the source of all energy,” Marinelli said. “Everybody is looking at you. You’ve got to bring it. If you show this is going to be tough, the guys come up and say ‘you don’t believe in me.’ Well, we believe in them, not by words, by actions.”
If you are looking for a reason to be optimistic about the overmatched and seemingly always undermanned defense being improved in 2014, then look no further than Marinelli, a 65-year-old bald man who walks with a limp and wears a sleeve on his leg.
He has the countenance of Yoda but is likened by this generation of players as a Master Splinter, the rat sensei of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
“It’s an honor, man, to be coached by him,” defensive end Jeremy Mincey said in almost reverent tones. “He’s like Master Splinter from the Ninja Turtles. He is like sensei. You learn everything from him. He is a very good teacher. He definitely coaches the man before the player. That alone makes a player play harder for him. I have played this game for nine years now, and he inspires me to work on things and still get better.”
Marinelli is in the final year of his contract. He was on the staff last year under his mentor, Monte Kiffin, who not only guided the worst defense in Cowboys history but one of the worst in league history, while also setting historic marks for futility.
The Cowboys became the first team in NFL history to allow four quarterbacks to pass for more than 400 yards in a game.
Marinelli knew the job was tough when he took it.
But he takes his job just as he did leading the defensive line of the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers anchored by Hall of Famer defensive tackle Warren Sapp — and just as he did coordinating a unit with a bushel of Pro Bowlers in Chicago three years ago.
He coaches everybody the same.
“I just bring knowledge No. 1,” Marinelli said. “Truth, 2. And you are going to work hard and develop your skill every day, 3. I’m just a grinder. I don’t back off. It’s an every-day deal until we get it right. If I fail, they fail.”
It’s that hard work, consistency and the adherence to those core principles that has made the Cowboys believers in Marinelli. They don’t expect him to work miracles. But they do believe he will get the best out of every player and ultimately the defense.
“I think he is a great person, first of all,” coach Jason Garrett said. “I think he understands, and he says it all the time. We are teaching the man first and the player second. Wherever they are, it allows the players to grow and be better than he was before.
“He believes in fundamentals. He believes in repetition. He is very demanding. There is not a lot of gray in there with him. Once players understand that that is the environment they are going to be in, they succumb to it and embrace it.”
Marinelli understands everybody is not going to become a Pro Bowler like Melton or Hall of Famer like Sapp. But they will get better. Marinelli has a track record of 19 years in the NFL proving that.
He proved it last year, with Hatcher making the Pro Bowl for the first time and defensive end George Selvie going from off the street to a career-high seven sacks.
“I was a 1 1/2-year defensive end when he got me and moved me inside,” Melton said of working with Marinelli as a rookie in Chicago after moving to defensive end as a junior at Texas. “I credit him with my development. Rod is very passionate at what he does. It’s fun getting back with him and feeding off his energy.”
All the Cowboys are feeding off that energy.