As the Dallas Cowboys learned the hard way again last season, Tony Romo is the figure most critical to their success. No. 2 on the list might be defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli.
The Cowboys are built to win with offense, with Romo now surrounded by Dez Bryant, Ezekiel Elliott, Jason Witten and a punishing offensive line. In the 2014 season, when they captured the NFC East and came one controversial call away from the conference title game, they were averaging nearly 30 points per game, paced by 1,800-yard rusher (DeMarco Murray) and Romo, who put together arguably his best NFL season.
But not to be overlooked in that division-winning effort—and it wasn’t by those paying attention—was the work Marinelli’s defensive unit put in. Without any obvious stars, Dallas’s defense finished in the top half of the league in points allowed, holding every single opponent under 30 points and half of their foes to 20 or less. It was some of Marinelli’s finest work.
He made lemons out of lemonade last season, too, giving the Cowboys a chance to win most weeks despite the utter calamity that occurred when Romo was sidelined.
If the ‘16 season is to be a bounceback year for the ’Boys, Marinelli will have to pull a rabbit from his hat again. On Thursday, the NFL announced that starting linebacker Rolando McClain would have to sit out the first 10 games of the season for another violation of the league’s substance-abuse policy. He will join previously punished edge defenders Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence (four games each) on the sideline. Those are three significant losses for a team already shy on proven depth in the front seven.
The Cowboys have known for some time that they would be short Gregory and Lawrence in Weeks 1–4, although they had held out hope for Lawrence’s presence until a separate ruling Thursday denied his appeal.
They probably were not caught fully off-guard by the McClain revelation, either—the front office has kept McClain on incentive-heavy, one-year deals mainly because of his checkered past. Still, the Cowboys are in a bit of a predicament now that he has to sit until November. McClain played 60% of the team’s defensive snaps last season, per Football Outsiders, second among linebackers behind Sean Lee; he notched 80 tackles, third-most on the team. There is not a surefire answer behind him on the roster.
Any notion of moving Lee back to the middle should be left on the cutting room floor. The oft-injured linebacker, who turns 30 in July, looked right at home on the weak side last season.
So that leaves Anthony Hitchens, Andrew Gachkar, Mark Nzeocha and Damien Wilson as the chief internal candidates to pick up reps. Hitchens has the most experience, while Nzeocha may be the most intriguing athletically. None of the names listed was originally expected to be a first-teamer come September.
Which brings us back to Marinelli. In part because he has needed to and in part because he has wanted to, Marinelli has favored a depth-centric approach to his pass rush, cycling linemen out with regularity.
McClain’s absence could force Marinelli to adopt a similar approach at linebacker, alongside Lee.
Is it ideal? No. Could it work? Sure. At least, enough for the Cowboys to resemble their 2014 selves, assuming Romo stays healthy and Elliott is everything he’s expected to be out of the backfield.
“We have a chance to have a good defensive football team,” Dallas executive VP Stephen Jones said earlier this month, via the team’s website. [I have] a lot of confidence in Rod and I know he’ll come up with ways to get pressure on the quarterback.”
A lot depends on how those temporary fill-ins hold down the fort, at least until Gregory and Lawrence reemerge in Week 5. So the Cowboys’ hopes for this coming season will rely heavily on Marinelli to work his magic yet again.