Much has been made about the overhaul the Dallas Cowboys have made on defense.
Four starters and six major contributors are gone from a year ago, replaced by an influx of youth.
But what the Cowboys are really counting on to trigger an improvement on defense is the one thing that never changes, and seemingly will never waiver, the relentless coaching of coordinator Rod Marinelli.
Even at the age of 68, the fire, passion and attention to detail in molding the young Cowboys today are the same as they were in 1996 when Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy hired him away from Southern California to join him with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“I asked some of my scouts and some of my good coaches, they said you ought to go to Southern Cal and see this guy Rod Marinelli,” Dungy said. “We started pulling tape from Arizona State, California and USC, places he had been. The players looked and played the same way. That is what you are looking for.”
In other words, they played with passion, fire, technique and relentlessness. They all weren’t All-Americans. They just hustled and played hard.
That’s been true to form for Marinelli and his charges since coming to the NFL and certainly since his time with the Cowboys, where he’s never been blessed with a litany of Pro Bowl talent, but routinely maximizes their ability.
“He gets them to play above their heads and to the best of their ability,” Dungy said. “He has a philosophy he believes in and he doesn’t let anything deter that. He transmits to the players. There aren’t going to be any excuses. There is not going to be a Plan B. When the players see that type of commitment they are going to rise that level.”
So Marinelli doesn’t waste time lamenting the guys lost in free agency. He is too busy doing what he does best: coaching, teaching and molding.
To that end, training camp is his own personal nirvana.
The Cowboys started a week earlier this season because they played in the Hall of Fame Game, giving them five preseason games.
Marinelli couldn’t have been happier.
“It’s a benefit,” Marinelli said. “We have a lot of young players. That means more drill work. I look at it as a real positive for us. We lost good players. But it’s on us as coaches to coach and teach. We got to bring them along and put them under fire.”
The Cowboys open the season Sunday night against the New York Giants at AT&T Stadium.
Marinelli is challenged in 2017 by youth, inexperience, a lack of proven talent and availability concerns. The Cowboys will open the season with suspensions to defensive ends David Irving (four games) and Damontre Moore (two games) while cornerback Nolan Carroll (DWI) and linebacker Damien Wilson (aggravated assault) also have issues and could join them.
“We just coach the guys we are working with,” Marinelli said. “I just keep moving forward. If you look this way or that way, it’s going to slow you down. I enjoy these days too much. I keep going. And if they won’t go, you just drag them along and go with the guys that will be here and love it. I just want guys that love football as much as me.”
Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp, who played for Marinelli in Tampa Bay, said love and passion for the game are key to getting along with the fiery coach. He is as hard on a Pro Bowler as he is on free agents.
“He will meet you more than half way,” Sapp said. “He will have always have a new challenge for you. There was never a dull day with him. The work he put in made me want to put that amount of work in.”
Sapp said Marinelli’s love and passion for his players are what keeps him going.
He certainly has no plans of quitting anytime soon, not with Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau still going hard at the age of 79.
Besides, Marinelli says he has no interest in doing anything else.
“He still loves it,” Dungy said. “He loves the challenge. He loves building men. He loves building people into units. He loves to see people be the best they can be. He will be there until they don’t want him anymore.”