Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli had a chance to leave the Dallas Cowboys after last season, a year in which he turned a historically bad defense into a middle-of-the-road unit.
A reunion with his former colleague and roommate, Lovie Smith, in Tampa Bay seemed too good for Marinelli to pass up. They could help the Buccaneers return to their glory days, the thought process went.
But Marinelli surprised some by re-upping with the Cowboys, believing they were on the verge of being a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
“[Lovie] is one of my best friends in my life,” Marinelli said. “But I just felt that we got something started here, and I’ve really enjoyed it here, and I’ve been there.
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“Sometimes it’s hard to go back. I’ve really enjoyed myself here. I love the head coach and the organization.”
Marinelli will return to Tampa for the first time as an opposing coach Sunday when the Cowboys take on the Bucs, and facing Smith is added motivation.
[Lovie] is one of my best friends in my life. But I just felt that we got something started here ...
Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, on why he didn’t rejoin Lovie Smith with the Bucs
The 66-year-old Marinelli laughed about a text exchange he had with Smith earlier in the week.
“It’s like playing your brother, and when you play your brother, you fight a little bit harder,” said Marinelli, who shared a hotel room with Smith when the two first got to Tampa in 1996 on Tony Dungy’s staff.
Added Smith: “There’s nothing like competing against your brother. You don’t want to beat anybody worse than you want to beat your brother. … We won’t have a family reunion or anything like that this weekend.”
It’s a meaningful game for each side, of course.
The Cowboys are desperately trying to keep their slim playoff hopes alive, while Smith is looking to re-establish a winning culture with the Bucs (3-5).
For the Cowboys, the defense must finally live up to its expectations going into the season. They simply haven’t in this six-game losing streak that includes a pair of overtime losses in which the offense didn’t even get a chance with the ball.
Compared with a year ago when the defense widely exceeded expectations in Marinelli’s first year as defensive coordinator, this year has been an underachieving group.
The Cowboys spent much of their off-season focused on upgrading the defense. They used their first two draft picks on defensive back Byron Jones and defensive end Randy Gregory.
They re-signed linebacker Rolando McClain, had linebacker Sean Lee returning from injury and brought in trouble defensive end Greg Hardy. They’re expected to play Sunday without Lee, who is sidelined with a concussion.
There’s nothing like competing against your brother. You don’t want to beat anybody worse than you want to beat your brother.
Tampa Bay head coach Lovie Smith on facing Marinelli
Regardless, this is a unit that most thought would rank better than 15th in overall defense midway through the season. On top of that, the Cowboys have only 14 sacks, which puts them on pace to match their total from last season (28), and have forced only four takeaways (they forced the second most in the league last year with 31).
“Honestly, what needs to happen with this defense, is we need to have our playmakers, including myself, make more plays,” said defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford, who is nursing a shoulder injury, which has hindered him from being the desired disruptive force as the three-technique tackle.
“We might need to get out of our comfort zone and do something different. We also need to run to the ball better. With that will come turnovers and just hopefully a little bit of luck in getting the ball.”
4 Takeaways for the Cowboys through eight games, after having 31 last season.
Takeaways are something Marinelli has preached every day as a coach, dating to his days as the defensive line coach in Tampa from 1996-2005.
For whatever reason, though, the Cowboys haven’t got them this season. Six of their eight games have ended without the defense forcing a turnover.
“Scratching my head as well,” cornerback Brandon Carr said. “But we have another half of the season to play. We can wipe the slate clean on the first eight, forget about last year and make some noise for the last eight games.
“As long as we keep harping on it, keep working every single day, believing in ourselves, eventually it’ll start coming.”
Marinelli would love nothing more than for it to happen with his “brother” on the opposing sideline, and in a town where he’s considered royalty after being part of the coaching staff that brought the 2002 NFL championship home.
“It was a special time, really a special team,” Marinelli said. “They had a long history of losing, and we were able to be part of something that was pretty special.”
Cowboys at Bucaneers
noon Sunday, KDFW/4