Cowboys Must Be Careful to Not Make Marinelli 'The Fall Guy' For Defense and Draft Failures

Mike Fisher

FRISCO - Everything here at The Star seems so fresh and shiny and new, which creates the natural temptation to assume that everything before the hiring of Mike McCarthy - the coaching, the scheme, the philosophies - were rusty and ugly and old.

That's a psychological trap. Dallas Cowboys fans should hope the new regime doesn't stumble into it.

Interpretations of McCarthy's plans regarding Dallas' offense, defense and special teams have been homogenized and simplified for the consumption of the public. In short, it's been explained as, "The offensive was good so it won't change much.'' And "The special teams was awful so it will change a lot.''

And what about the defense, led last year by Rod Marinelli, who has a million years of NFL experience under his belt and has long been lauded as a master (even by his players as he's out the door, not retained here and therefore bound to the Raiders)? Oh, and what about the defense co-led by Kris Richard, who, like, a minute ago was being considered by the media and fans as a potential head-coaching replacement for the ousted Jason Garrett? 

“The defensive system is going to change,” McCarthy told us last week in an intimate sit-down with local beat writers. “The terminology, there is going to be a big change there ...''

That's fine. Makes sense. What else, philosophically, can we watch for?

“Let’s get as many good football players as we possibly can,'' McCarthy said.

We don't mean this as a slap at the new coach, but that statement - which is garnering headlines - is pablum being fed us by McCarthy. "Get good players''? Didn't Marinelli want "good players''? Didn't Richard want "good players''? 

"Good players''? That's it? That's a change?

It's not it. It's not a change. And if the Cowboys want to tell us otherwise, fine. We just don't want them believing it is so.

We've now framed this as McCarthy wanting the Cowboys defense to be about "fitting the scheme to the talent,'' rather than the other way around. We've also made it seem like McCarthy and the coaching staff and Will McClay and the personnel staff are suddenly, miraculously, in lock-step in terms of what sort of players they'll prioritize in the NFL Draft and in free agency.

But they aren't. Because that would be impossible to have, just two weeks after McCarthy's hiring, meshed so perfectly. Indeed, we've got one source suggesting that maybe the new head coach and new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan might prefer "bigger tackles'' so that Dallas can be more "multiple.''

But on the day before the scouts arrived at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, it was a "maybe.'' That's what some of the Cowboys guys in the building "think'' McCarthy means by a defense that is more "multiple'' - that is, could play a little 3-4, in which the defensive tackle is a true "nose tackle'' and could therefore be a wide-body type.

But otherwise ... We don't know yet that suddenly, Dallas doesn't have a "prototypical defensive end'' or "traits'' it wants in a cornerback. And whatever changes do occur, they'll likely be subtle ones. (Theoretically, the Cowboys, for instance, could favor cornerbacks with a history of making interceptions, though they might be shorter or slower, rather than with body types that suggest they might make interceptions.)

Oh, and one more thing: While COO Stephen Jones seems to be suggesting that Marinelli was "inflexible'' - "Rod very (much) knew what he wanted in his defense and the type of players he wanted,'' he said. "so, there is some degree of flexibility there'' - the fact is, Marinelli's substantial influence in the draft room allowed him no unilateral power.

Will McClay still built the board. Garrett still signed off. And then the Joneses did. On every pick. Yes, on Taco Charlton, too. Yes, on Trysten Hill, too.

Interestingly, the Cowboys seem willing to let Marinelli take the blame of the high-pick failure that was Taco while still praising the future of high-pick Hill. (Because, of course, Hill is still here.)

Here's what's odd: We griped that Marinelli had too much influence in the NFL Draft ... but now we celebrate that McCarthy and Nolan are going to have a lot of influence on the NFL Draft?

Marinelli was a 4-3 guy. Like every other NFL defense, though, he ended up using two linebackers most of the time. ... not exactly "multiple,'' however. And McCarthy and Nolan?

“The 3-4 and 4-3 defense is how you’re identifying the player profiles,” McCarthy said. “Player acquisition and coaching instruction is a two-way street. I think if you have a system of defense where you need a certain player to fit your scheme, you’re limiting your personnel department.”

Yeah, yeah, but guess what? When we pressed McCarthy on which he favored, he conceded Dallas will be a "four-down-linemen'' defense that uses lots of "sub packages.''

You know. Meaning just two linebackers. Kinda like Marinelli did it.

The Cowboys' bad draft picks aren't the fault of the defensive coordinator, or at least, aren't the sole fault. The Cowboys' bad performances on defense? Plenty of blame to go around there as well.

Change, even subtle change? It's worth a shot.

“Being a multiple defense and being able to do a lot of things as we’re starting to see around the league can be problematic for opposing teams, coordinators and quarterbacks seeing different plays,” Jones said, and it is especially true if a team is good at it, with Bill Belichick's Patriots the best example. “To some degree, we’ll evolve into that type of defense.''

No complaints there.

“I think Mike said it best,'' Stephen continued. "He just wants to take players that can make plays.''

Some complaint there ... because "We just want good players'' really isn't a change at all. 

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