Dallas Cowboys

Cowboys’ defense inspired by its nickname: The Mighty Orphans

David Irving (95) and other Cowboys defenders have embraced the nickname given them by defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli.
David Irving (95) and other Cowboys defenders have embraced the nickname given them by defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. mfaulkner@star-telegram.com

Tyrone Crawford was telling the story of how the Dallas Cowboys’ defense got its nickname when rookie Maliek Collins interjected.

“It’s from the book,” Collins said.

Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, an avid reader, recently used a synopsis of Jim Dent’s book, Twelve Mighty Orphans, to inspire his unit. The nickname stuck.

“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.”

The “Twelve Mighty Orphans,” residents of the Masonic Home Orphanage in Fort Worth, played Texas high school football at the highest level during the 1930s and ’40s. Despite an enrollment of 150 and no real athletic budget, the smaller Masons became a football powerhouse under coach Rusty Russell.

They tied Corsicana in the 1932 high school state championship football game.

“Loved it. Great book,” Marinelli said. “Just their love of football and the toughness was inspiring. We talk about it a lot. It’s just something that fit.

“Now, they’ve just got to play like them.”

The name fits the Cowboys.

While the Cowboys sport five first-round picks on their offensive starting 11, only two of the defense’s 25 players were first-rounders. Seven others heard the call in the second or third rounds.

Six Cowboys defenders were undrafted free agents, and seven more were drafted in the fifth round or later.

Indeed, they are the NFL’s “Orphans.”

“The Mighty Orphans. I love it, man,” said Cowboys safety Byron Jones, a first-round pick in 2015. “It’s hilarious, because that’s what we are right now.

“Everybody likes it.”

The Cowboys rank only 16th in yards allowed, but they are seventh in points allowed. Dallas has nine takeaways and has allowed only 11 touchdowns on 21 opponent red zone possessions.

“We’ve kept the scores of the games down,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “Ultimately, that’s how you measure a defense is by how many points the opposing team scores. I think we’ve done a really good job of that. At different times in different games, we’ve done some things better than other things. Some games we’ve done a good job preventing big plays. Other games, they have made big plays, but we’ve responded well to those big plays, and we’ve kept them out of the end zone. At times, we have defended the run really well. Other times, not as well. At times, we’ve affected the quarterback. Other times, not as well. But I think the constant throughout most of the season is we’ve kept the score down.”

The “Mighty Orphans” are playing with a chip on their shoulder, according to linebacker Sean Lee, after no one expected them to be better than last season. In 2015, the Cowboys ranked 17th out of 32 teams in yards allowed, were tied for 25th with 31 sacks, and had a league-low 11 takeaways.

So far this season, other than quarterback Dak Prescott, the Cowboys’ defense is the team’s biggest surprise.

“I think we came into this year with confidence,” Lee said. “I felt that there were things we did well last year. It wasn’t good enough, but we had a base where we knew we could play well if we improved in the fourth quarter, if we improved in turnovers and played some more team defense. We knew we could be a good defense.”

Charean Williams: 817-390-7760, @NFLCharean

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