IRVING, Texas -- Tiny foam footballs hang on the lockers of the Dallas Cowboys' starting defensive linemen along with a personalized note from their position coach.
“Big Daddy,” the note in Jason Hatcher's locker begins, addressing the defensive tackle by his new nickname, “THIS IS A BALL! -- Sack-Fumble + Score. We're due!!!”
Does that sound like a defensive line coach satisfied with an NFC-leading 13 sacks through three weeks?
That's classic Marinelli, the most overqualified position coach in the NFL. He's constantly pushing his “Rush Men,” as the label outside the defensive line's meeting room calls them. Marinelli's methods include the occasional high-decibel four-letter word, a ton of attention to detail and a type of relentless, personable enthusiasm that brings a smile to the faces of the Cowboys' newfound Fearsome Foursome.
Many of us ridiculed owner/general manager Jerry Jones for declaring the defensive line a position of strength on draft weekend after the Cowboys passed on Sharrif Floyd in the first round. The doubts swelled when former Pro Bowlers Jay Ratliff and Anthony Spencer watched from the sidelines during training camp and top reserve Tyrone Crawford suffered a season-ending torn Achilles tendon.
Ratliff won't play a down until Week 7 at the earliest. Spencer managed to play a grand total of 34 snaps before it was determined that he needed the dreaded microfracture surgery. He joined Crawford and Ben Bass, another top reserve defensive lineman, on the injured reserve.
Yet the Dallas defensive line has been borderline dominant despite a pair of journeymen joining DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher, veterans who made the adjustment to new positions with the Cowboys' scheme change.
The moral of the story: Don't underestimate Marinelli magic.
Would anyone blame Jones if he went the told-ya-so route? But he even acknowledges that Marinelli has exceeded his enormous expectations.
“That would have been hard to do because when I looked at our depth during the offseason right before we went to training camp, there were a couple of holes there,” Jones said. “And all I did was picture in Rod Marinelli. I just put Rod Marinelli on my depth chart as we saw what other teams, how they made decisions, what players might be available that potentially we could find with the profile and characteristics that would fit our scheme under Rod.
“That's what I think of him.”
Ware, aka “Long Arms,” has racked up a ton of sacks under a handful of defensive coordinators. Maybe it's a stretch to give Marinelli too much credit for Ware's back-to-back two-sack performances.
Hatcher, however, is on pace to establish a season-high for sacks midway through next month. The eight-year veteran has never had more than 4.5 sacks in a season, but he's had one in each of the Cowboys' games so far this season. Part of that spike in production is his new position, which allows him to often go one-on-one against guards, but Hatcher gives Marinelli much of the credit.
Marinelli's most impressive work is reflected in the performances of the Cowboys' off-the-scrap-heap starters. Nose tackle Nick Hayden, aka “Golden Cock,” was out of football last season. Defensive end George Selvie, aka “Brick Layer,” is a journeyman on his fourth team in four NFL seasons.
Hayden and Selvie are thriving in the Cowboys' system. Their careers have been revived by Marinelli.
“He just understands players,” said Hatcher, who cited Marinelli's advice to envision himself as a basketball player trying to get to the rim during pass rushes as a key to his sack success. “He coaches the man. He ain't about no politics. He ain't about trying to please nobody. He just loves good football. That's what's special about him. He knows how to get you going.
“He's the best defensive line coach in the league, in my opinion.”
It's almost as difficult to argue otherwise as it is for defensive linemen to meet Marinelli's demands for them.