As they wandered, thin in depth and frequently oblivious to flying objects, the Dallas Cowboys were shadowed throughout the preseason by one dominant cliché:
The Cowboys, we chanted with assurance, would go as far this season as their defense can take them.
And so here we are in the middle of January, and coordinator Rod Marinelli’s patchwork defense has taken the Cowboys – even carried them on certain Sundays – to the brink of the NFC title game.
Postseason honors are certainly due the two rookies, running back Ezekiel Elliott and quarterback Dak Prescott, and the draft-enriched offensive line fully deserves all of its Pro Bowl honors. Head coach Jason Garrett, likewise, should be a heavy favorite for NFL coach of the year.
But Marinelli, too, has earned something, anything. The job he has done this season, mixing and matching, plugging and patching, hiding his unit’s weaknesses while funneling opponents toward his defense’s strengths, has been honors-worthy.
The 67-year-old Vietnam vet won’t get the league’s Assistant Coach of the Year award. That trinket seems to annually go to the Wade Phillips and Steve Spagnuolos of the NFL world.
Lost in the neon of Prescott’s and Elliott’s arrivals, however, has been a defense that allowed 20 or fewer points in 10 of 16 games this season. A defense, unlike the Cowboys’ offense, that lists only two first-round draft picks (Morris Claiborne, Byron Jones) on its depth chart. A defense with 11 players who were either undrafted free agents or selected in the sixth or seventh round of the NFL draft.
That’s what Marinelli was handed, and yet here he is, still finding ways to get his defense off the field in the middle of January.
The season’s sternest test will come Sunday, when the Cowboys try to stop Aaron Rodgers and the league’s hottest team, the Green Bay Packers. The Cowboys sacked Rodgers once during their 30-16 win over the Packers in October.
They’ll have to dial up the pressure Sunday, after seeing Rodgers waltz around the pocket last weekend against the Giants.
“It’s not just the Hail Mary,” Marinelli said Thursday, “it’s everything he does. He boots, he gets outside – the run-pass threat. He sets up in the pocket and moves around.”
By this time, though, 13 victories since a struggling preseason, the Cowboys have pieced together a measure of depth on their defensive line. Even with Demarcus Lawrence being suspended for four games and Randy Gregory for most of the season, Marinelli has found a rotation of usually eight that he can call upon.
“We’ve just got to keep coming,” Marinelli said Thursday. “That’s the conditioning part of the defense, and that’s a big factor for us in our rotation of down guys. We’ve got to stay alive, we’ve got to keep hustling, because that’s draining on the down guys.
“The one thing I think has helped us over this whole year is we’ve really developed depth, not only up front but in our secondary and our backers.”
Marinelli’s star pupil has been defensive end David Irving, undrafted and plucked off the Kansas City practice squad.
Rodgers and the Packers will bring a seven-game winning streak to Arlington. Marinelli understands the challenge that awaits.
“You’re looking at a first ballot Hall of Famer,” he said of Rodgers. “We know what’s in store for us.”
What was supposed to be the Cowboys’ fatal shortcoming this season has turned into one of its best stories. There ought to be some kind of award for that.