SEATTLE -- "This was a coaching win."
That's what Jerry Jones said in the visitors' locker room at CenturyLink Field on Sunday evening, and he was absolutely right.
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It's taken a very long time and a lot of false starts (literally and figuratively), but it can now be said that this version of the Dallas Cowboys does not at all resemble the teams of past years. Those tissue-thin squads with far too much star power up top and far too little strength where it mattered? A thing of the past. When Jones' team (yes, we must call it so) waltzed onto Seattle's gladiator turf on Sunday and came out with a 30-23 victory, raising its record to 5-1 on the season, the era of the franchise that posted a perfect .500 record from 1997 through 2013, and three straight .500 seasons in the last three years was officially put to rest.
This Cowboys team is not a one-hit wonder -- they can hit all day, on both sides of the ball. They did just that against a Seattle team that's generally regarded as the NFL's most physical franchise, and they did it in a stadium where most teams go to die.
One of the primary reasons they did so was the coaching. The coaching of Jason Garrett, who many believe wouldn't even be there if Jones could contend with a stronger voice in the room. The coaching of Bill Callahan and Scott Linehan, Garrett's offensive assistants and colleagues, who have been the butt of jokes because it seems de rigueur with the Cowboys. Why do they have so many offensive coordinators? Can't one guy figure it out?
And it was most certainly the coaching of Rod Marinelli, Dallas' first-year defensive coordinator, a man who was seen by some as a sad story because he had undeniably inherited the worst defense in the NFL -- perhaps one of the worst in recent NFL history. Yet here his charges were, without DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher and with Sean Lee out for the season and Morris Claiborne benched and then lost for the season to a torn patellar tendon... and they held Seattle's offense to nine first downs, 206 total yards, 5-of-13 on third-down conversions and one touchdown -- Russell Wilson's nine-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. Linebacker Mike Morgan returned a blocked punt for Seattle's other touchdown in the first quarter, and then, it was down to three Steven Hauschka field goals. Were it not for Seattle's special teams, this game would have been a rout -- even with Dallas' own miscues factored in.
So what is it about Marinelli that has this defense playing so well, so assignment-correct, so close to the edge and yet so successfully when it counts? They came into this game ranked 21st in yards allowed, but eighth in points allowed, which is typical of a Marinelli defense -- it's bend but don't break, and make the other guy break right in front of you.
Defensive tackle Henry Melton came over from Chicago to work under Marinelli as he did when the coach ran the Bears' defensive line and defense from 2010 through '12, and to Melton, this is no surprise at all.
"It started real early in OTAs, and even before that when we were in workouts," Melton said of Marinelli's approach in Dallas. "We knew this defense needed to improve, and that's when I first got here. It's just been awesome to see everyone coming together, and everybody just doing their job."
It's a bit different for those players who have been in Dallas for a while, who have seen the merry-go-round of defensive coordinators and approaches and Jerry Jones swearing over and over that This time, it'll all work out. Safety Berry Church is on his fourth defensive coordinator in his five NFL seasons, all with the Cowboys, and Marinelli's approach has changed things in one simple manner: now, it's about accountability.
"He's been able to keep everybody accountable for each other," Church said after the game. "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."
Cornerback Orlando Scandrick, who was very outspoken in the locker room about refusing to compare this year's Cowboys team to those weaker little brothers of years past, nonetheless said that what's different about this squad is that everyone's where they're supposed to be. This is how a group of relatively unknown players with at times average talent can rise above their own limitations and become something special together. It's people becoming a team, in the truest sense.
"One-on-one," Scandrick said of the way Dallas' cornerbacks play now. "Man on man. We're doing what we do best. That's what Brandon [Carr] was brought here for, that's what I'm here for, that's what Sterling [Moore] is here for ... we're coming full circle, and we're taking advantage of our opportunities now. We're playing good football."
They are indeed, and it is a bit to Jones' surprise. In a way, that's how you know that this year's version of the Cowboys are for real -- they're not following a Jones script from the Dallas Cowboys Entertainment Department. This was, as Jones said, a coaching win. And the Cowboys now have five of them.
"I'm so proud of these guys," Scandrick said. "All of our corners -- we all made plays on the ball, we all fought to the end and we didn't back down ... I mean, I'm just so proud of my group of guys."