IRVING, Texas – Bears coach Marc Trestman had a decision to make when he replaced Lovie Smith in Chicago. For his part, he wanted to retain Rod Marinelli as the team's defensive coordinator.
It was an understandable decision. The Bears led the league in takeaways in 2012 with 44, and they finished fifth in total defense. Chicago maintained a fearsome reputation on defense during Marinelli's four-year stay – one season as defensive line coach, and three as defensive coordinator.
But after a talk with Trestman, Marinelli opted to leave.
"I have tremendous respect for Rod, and I'm sure he would tell you that we had a great conversation, Trestman said. "I laid it all out for him and certainly wanted him to stay. We certainly respected his decision to move on."
That decision may have had more to do with loyalty than any other issue. Marinelli and Smith both got their NFL starts in 1996 for Tampa Bay, under Tony Dungy and current Cowboys defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. During the Cowboys' bye week, Marinelli told reporters he had only gone to Chicago to reunite with his close friend.
"I'll say this – he is one of my very best friends," Marinelli said of Smith. "I went there because of him, not for any other reason. We had a long tenure together in Tampa, and I just – I believe in him."
Marinelli added that he feels similarly about Kiffin, which helps explain why he chose to make his way to Dallas after leaving the Bears in January.
"I just think, for me, that was Lovie's defense," he said.
In Dallas, Marinelli's influence as defensive line coach has been hard to miss. With a constantly rotating cast of characters, he has coaxed the Cowboys to 28 team sacks, including a career-high nine from Jason Hatcher.
"I have so much respect for him. I've said that so many times, but I'll say it again – he's a special guy. He's an icon at what he does" Kiffin said. "He isn't just a defensive line coach -- he was a head coach, he was a coordinator. He can be whatever he wants to be."
That also includes intangibles, in addition to mechanics. Cowboys coach Jason Garrett praised Marinelli's ability to teach fundamentals, but he said there's an extra quality to his expertise.
"He also does a good job of coaching the guys emotionally -- where your emotions need to be to play this game at a high level," Garrett said. "I think he does that in practice, he does that in the game. He's just an awfully good coach. I've learned a lot from him.
None of that is to say the Cowboys are dominating statistically. But it wasn't lost on Trestman that Dallas is one of the best in the league at creating takeaways – which was Chicago's specialty under Marinelli.
"Their ability to create turnovers has been their number one asset. They've got approximately, what, 25 turnovers right now," Trestman said. "It's enabled their offense to play on a short field and help them out at times." [embedded_ad]
Marinelli's role isn't limited to just defensive line, as Kiffin said. It also isn't limited to the defensive side of the ball. Marinelli's three-year stint as a head coach in Detroit, which saw the Lions post the NFL's only winless campaign, gave the veteran some valuable experience to bring to future staffs.
"He had a tough go in Detroit with the players, and no disrespect to Detroit, but just the whole situation," Kiffin said. "But this guy – and not just myself -- I know the head coach leans on him a lot, too. We all do."
From one stop to another and on to the Cowboys, that seems fine with Marinelli, who said confidence is key during the highs and lows of a coaching career.
"When I was in Detroit that was a great experience for me, because it's what I believed in. It didn't work, but I never lost confidence, I never lost faith – I went to Chicago and kept working," he said. "If you have a belief and it's tested, and you crack with that, then it's not a belief. So you better get a big semi to run over me, and you'd better do it three times."