It's not just head coaches who make teams better from year to year. Every season, certain assistant coaches emerge as crucial elements in the success of their teams. Here are a few of the better assistants this year -- coaches who could find themselves in more prominent roles as time goes on.
Rod Marinelli, defensive coordinator, Dallas Cowboys
Jason Hatcher, gone. DeMarcus Ware, gone. Sean Lee, out for the season. Morris Claiborne, first benched and then out for the season with an injury. Anthony Spencer, hurt to begin the season. Bruce Carter, dealing with his own off-and-on injury issues. Second-round pick Demarcus Lawrence, who was supposed to replace Ware in the abstract? Injured in the preseason, and won't be on the field until November.
Marinelli would have had enough to deal with had he simply inherited the Dallas defense of 2013, which was among the worst in recent NFL history. But with all the injuries and departures, it's no wonder so many were insisting that the 2014 version of Dallas' defense could be bad in an all-time sense.
It's an obvious narrative, but it's one that hasn't played out at all, because Marinelli has been perhaps the best assistant coach in the league this season. He's taken a bunch of undersold, underrated, non-elite players and turned them into a defense that is about league-average at its base and can be pretty special when it's on its game. Against the Seahawks last Sunday, the Cowboys shut down the play-action passing game and took advantage of Pete Carroll's curious decision to keep the ball away from Marshawn Lynch. The resulting defensive DVOA (Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted efficiency metric) of -50.4 percent was the fourth-best any defense has put up so far this season, but Marinelli's work goes beyond one game.
After the Seattle game, several Cowboys defenders couldn't wait to talk about how their first-year defensive coordinator has improved the unit. And Marinelli's success has not come through the implementation of advanced schemes -- it's all about assignment-correctness and putting his players in their best possible positions to succeed.
"He's been able to keep everybody accountable for each other," free safety Barry Church told me. "He's not going to let one guy slide. It's what he always preaches, that he brings it to a man's attention. Once everybody's accountable for one another, you feel that you don't want to be the guy who messes up. We all play for each other, and it's a great defensive team. It's not just one individual out there, making tremendous plays. It's the whole team, making sure they do their jobs."
That's showed up all over the place. Three-tech tackle Henry Melton has been a beast to deal with, amassing 1.5 sacks, three quarterback hits and 10 hurries. But that's to be expected -- Melton was a good player with the Bears, and he's familiar with Marinelli's system. End/tackle Tyrone Crawford (five hits, 10 hurries) and end Jeremy Mincey (two hits, 15 hurries) have also been stout on the line. And what of linebacker Rolando McClain, the former first-round bust who lost his passion for the game at one time? He has 16 defensive stops this season, along with a sack, and linebacker Justin Durant, who leads the team with 17 stops, is used all over the field in pass coverage. And when did guys like Orlando Scandrick and Sterling Moore become excellent inside/outside cornerbacks? When the new guy started drawing up the gameplan.
Jerry Jones put it best and most succinctly about Marinelli: "He's indispensable."
Teryl Austin, defensive coordinator, Detroit Lions
Just as surprising as Dallas' defensive resurgence has been what's going on in Detroit -- in fact, the Lions may be enjoying an even bigger one-year turnaround. Detroit currently ranks first overall in FO's defensive metrics; they were 14th last season. They rank first against the pass this season; in 2013, they were 20th. Austin, the Lions' first-year defensive coordinator, was the Ravens' secondary coach for the three previous seasons, and one of the first things Austin did was to put safety Glover Quin in the Ed Reed/Earl Thomas rover role. It's Quin's job to patrol the deep field, and he does that very well, but he's also great at moving in and jumping routes. This season, Quin has allowed six receptions on 11 targets for 44 yards, no touchdowns, two interceptions and an insane opposing quarterback rating of 24.6, per Pro Football Focus.
It's not just Quin, of course. Perhaps no Lions defender has emerged more this season than second-year cornerback Darius Slay. The Mississippi State alum started just four games in his rookie campaign, but this season, he's been targeted 44 times (fifth-most among all NFL cornerbacks), allowing 22 catches for 274 yards, no touchdowns, one pick and a 60.4 rating. The Lions have assembled a front seven with the potential to be great, but it's the secondary that has made all the difference this season.
What's the difference? Players say that Austin listens, and while that seems a simple thing, it's not. Listening leads to putting players in their best roles, as it has with Marinelli in Dallas.
"That stuff right there keeps the players engaged as well because when you’re sitting there knowing, 'Okay, all I can do is this,' well, whatever,” Quin said recently, “but when you sit there and say, 'Okay, I’m going to watch the film and see what they’re doing, and I may have an idea of something that we can do that the coaches maybe didn’t think of.'
"They’re open to us coming to them with ideas because that makes you look at the film in a different way. It makes you look at the film to figure out what can you do to combat what they’re doing, and it works."
Head coach Jim Caldwell has worked with Austin before -- in Baltimore, and all the way back to Penn State and Wake Forest in the early 1990s. Caldwell is not at all surprised by what Austin's done.
"I think what he’s doing is basically what we all know," Caldwell said in early October. "It’s always been a player’s game, but yet you have to have someone to provide framework for them in terms of scheme that can look at what they can do from the technique and a fundamental standpoint and putting them in the right place at the right time. Teryl has been able to do that."
In each of Austin's three stops (Seattle, Arizona, Baltimore), the defenses he helped coach made the Super Bowl. It's early to suggest that the Lions are on their way to that point, but things look pretty good so far.
Kyle Shanahan, offensive coordinator, Cleveland Browns
The Browns currently rank second -- yes, second -- in FO's offensive rankings behind the Broncos. Brian Hoyer, who was never much of a deep passer before, has completed 15 of 24 passes of 20 yards or more for 531 yards, two touchdowns and one pick this season. Two rookie running backs -- Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell -- have filled in masterfully in the place of Ben Tate, whose injury status has forced him into the shadows, though Tate ranks third behind Dallas' DeMarco Murray and Baltimore's Justin Forsett in FO's running back ratings. Travis Benjamin has come out of nowhere to make a name for himself as a great deep threat, and Shanahan has been at the head of it all. This despite the potential distractions brought by the presence of Johnny Manziel and the absence of Josh Gordon.
Now, Shanahan faces a greater test -- with the season-ending leg injury suffered by center Alex Mack, right guard John Greco will move over to Mack's old spot, with veteran Paul McQuistan getting the first shot in Greco's old space. And the line is the big reason for Cleveland's offensive turnaround this season, especially on the left side, where Mack, rookie left guard Joel Bitonio and left tackle Joe Thomas held it down as well as any line side in the league.
Todd Bowles, defensive coordinator, Arizona Cardinals
Bowles' Cardinals finished second to Seattle in FO's defensive rankings in 2013, but it's pretty clear that he's doing an even better job this season, despite the fact that the defense has dropped to sixth. The Cards are maintaining their presence without inside linebackers Karlos Dansby (free agency) and Daryl Washington (suspension), defensive tackle Darnell Dockett and primary pass-rusher John Abraham (season-ending injuries), and they're currently without end Calais Campbell, who was injured in Week 5's loss to the Broncos. Defensive backs Jerraud Powers and Antonio Cromartie are fitting in well, especially Powers, who has picked off three passes and allowed a 59.8 quarterback rating. When Campbell went out, replacement Alex Okafor ended the game against the Broncos with a quarterback hurry and racked up two sacks against the Redskins last Sunday.
Dave Fipp, special teams coordinator, Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles scored special teams touchdowns in each game from Weeks 3 through 5, and that's what kept the team on top as the offense rounded into shape and the defense worked to gain consistency. The addition of return man Darren Sproles has been a huge factor, to be sure, but it's Fipp who has set things up for success. After the team became the first to score touchdowns on blocked punts in consecutive games since the 2002 Ravens, tight end James Casey -- who helped block that second punt against the Rams on Oct. 5 -- praised his coach.
"It was a great call by Coach Fipp, it was a great scheme rush," Casey said. "They [the Rams] do a lot of different formations on the punt team, and normally a lot of teams don’t do that kind of stuff. If they’re going to do that, we’re going to rush them early on and get them out of it. We knew they were vulnerable to the rush with different formations than normal. Burton came hard, we all came really hard. The center and guard both got [Bryan] Braham and I had no one on me. That allowed me to come up the middle."