IRVING, Texas – For some, it can still be an issue deciphering the specific roles of each coach after the various offseason changes, but it’s no issue picking out the most impactful move.
That is, without question, the move to make Rod Marinelli the defensive coordinator.
Dallas Cowboys officials can say whatever they want about Monte Kiffin’s new position by adding the title of assistant head coach, but the reality is Marinelli’s now in charge of the defense. It’s a switch that should help change the course of next season more significantly than any other coaching move.
For starters, Marinelli won’t need to do much to at least improve the defense from where it was at last year as the NFL’s worst total defense, allowing 415 yards per game. No other NFL team allowed even 400 yards per game.
In addition to earning the unwavering faith of all the many linemen who cycled in through Dallas last season, Marinelli also experienced recent success as a defensive coordinator in the NFL.
The Bears finished as the No. 5 total defense in Marinelli’s final season as the defensive coordinator for Chicago in 2012. Throughout Marinelli’s tenure, that defense had a penchant for pressure and takeaways. The Bears ranked in the top 10 in sacks, interceptions and forced fumbles in Marinelli’s final season as coordinator.
Since arriving as the defensive line coach last season, he’s preached the importance of finishing. A sack is not enough to Marinelli. He wants the ball to pop out and for his linemen to be athletic enough to take that to the house. He’ll now get to preach the same objective to a wider audience on defense.
The Bears led the league with 24 interceptions in his final season in Chicago, returning eight of them for touchdowns. Chicago also ranked in the top 10 in total defense two out of three times during Marinelli’s three years as coordinator.
Now, this is a different team he’s dealing with. His personnel in Chicago undoubtedly played a role in those numbers. But Marinelli’s recent past gives reason to believe this defense has a better chance to succeed under his tutelage, and no one would have scoffed had this changed been made last season. Any marginal change will be an improvement from finishing last in the league, but he gives the Cowboys the potential to be better than just “not the worst.”
On the other side of the ball, the Dallas Cowboys realigned a coach (Bill Callahan) who’s now still on the staff and part of the game-planning process on offense while adding to the mix a new play-caller (Scott Linehan) and voice for the offense with new terminology.
Last year, owner/general manager Jerry Jones said it was his intention for Jason Garrett to be significantly less involved on offense before circumstances changed the original plan. Will that happen again if the offense is out of sync early on as it adjusts to Scott Linehan’s offense?
The decision to make Marinelli the defensive coordinator is the major move everyone was waiting for, and it’s the move that will make the most impact among the various changes that occurred to the coaching staff this offseason.
It makes sense for the focus of this offseason to rest squarely on the Dallas Cowboys defense.
We’re talking about a unit that finished last in the NFL and was the worst in franchise history. The Cowboys surrendered 500 and 600 yard days, 40 and 50-point totals and first downs galore in 2013; in 2014, they changed their defensive coordinator from Monte Kiffin to Rod Marinelli.
All eyes will be on how the defense improves, and it will certainly have to if the Dallas Cowboys are going to compete for anything meaningful. For the money, though, the real improvement comes on offense, which is also under new management in the form of offensive coordinator Scott Linehan.
The story is well-known by now: Jason Garrett brought in an old colleague in Linehan – someone with similar offensive philosophies to himself – to oversee the passing game and manage play calling duties in place of Bill Callahan.
Both Marinelli and Linehan have had their share of success at these positions before. Chicago led the league in turnovers and finished fifth in total defense under Marinelli’s supervision in 2012. With Linehan serving as offensive coordinator, Detroit finished sixth, third and fifth in total offense in the past three seasons.
Take a look at who each coordinator is working with for your answer about which unit will look better in 2014. The defense could possibly lose Jason Hatcher and Anthony Spencer, and there is the ever-present question about whether DeMarcus Ware returns – or how well he’ll play if he does. The secondary remains a question mark, particularly at safety, and the linebacker corps appears unsettled – its lone constant, Sean Lee, is once again returning from injury.
Yes, it’s likely that Marinelli will have some new draft picks to work with, and there’s no telling what free agency could bring. As much as that might help, though, any rookie contributions would have to be substantial to bolster the Dallas Cowboys standing that much.
Meanwhile, this Dallas offense – which finished a surprisingly mediocre 16th in total offense – returns four of the team’s five Pro Bowlers from 2013. The Cowboys have 2013 Pro Bowlers at wide receiver, left tackle, tight end, and running back. Although not an award winner last season, Tony Romo has a few accolades of his own.
Everyone knows the gaudy numbers Linehan was able to put up with Calvin Johnson and Matt Stafford in Detroit, and that can only benefit Romo and Dez Bryant. Similarly, it should open up opportunities for Jason Witten, Terrance Williams, and even Cole Beasley to get more involved.
And take a look at the Lions’ 2013 rushing totals before you worry about DeMarco Murray’s production. Murray is coming off his first 1,000 yard season and his first Pro Bowl nod, and the Dallas Cowboys will undoubtedly want to continue that momentum.
Fortunately, 2013 saw Reggie Bush manage just the second 1,000-yard season of his career under Linehan in Detroit. The Lions offense also produced a 650-yard, eight-touchdown effort from backup Joique Bell. The two backs weren’t exactly slouches in the passing game, either. Bell caught 53 balls for 547 yards, while Bush nabbed 54 for 506.
The Dallas Cowboys managed basically no production from the running backs behind Murray. If you’re a fan of Lance Dunbar or Joseph Randle, the addition of Linehan can only mean good things.
None of that accounts for an offensive line that may finally be considered a strength of this team. Anchored by Tyron Smith and bolstered by the addition of Travis Frederick, the Dallas offensive line caught fire in the second half of 2013.
So it’s not as if I think Linehan is a better coach than Marinelli, and I’m also not saying Marinelli can’t improve this defense. I don’t think there’s any argument Linehan has more to work with, though, and that should show when the offense returns to its more explosive ways.