FRISCO, Texas – There's something noticeably different about this Dallas defense.
Their production, paired with passion, has created an unbreakable bond in this locker room. The rest of the league is slowly starting to take notice. And another portion of this evolution is all the new pieces in this story – pieces that have slowly been falling into place since day one of training camp.
Enter nose tackle Antwaun Woods, who came by way of the Tennessee Titans. You probably know him as the "Human Log," a nickname given to him by former Super Bowl champion and now analyst Nate Newton. But Woods knows himself better than anyone – and says this success has been a long time coming.
"Honestly, from college and high school, to the Titans, to here, I've always wanted a defensive line – and a defense – that's really close," Woods said. "In the NFL, it's hard. You know, everybody's married, they've got separate lives. Well when I got here, there was something about the group that was just a natural closeness."
And whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, humans crave closeness. We long for meaningful relationships and unbreakable friendships, but we all know how rare it is. So what's really happening here? What goes on behind closed doors in defensive meeting rooms deep in the heart of Texas on these chilly winter nights?
Let's start where Woods says it all began, underneath the August sun.
Woods landed with the Cowboys after spending two full years fighting his way on and off the practice squad with the Titans. And through a short but exciting stint with Dallas, it's hard to believe he was contemplating if football was even for him, just this last spring.
"There was some times last year where I went through stuff as a man. Like, 'Dang, is this for me?' I pride myself on being mentally tough. I told myself, once I left [Tennessee], all I need is a chance for another set of eyes to see me. I felt like if any other coach, any other set of eyes can see me, they're gonna like me," Woods said.
And he was serious about his opportunity. So serious, that he went straight to the defensive coordinator to make his mark in Dallas.
"[Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli] told me when I first got here, I had to lose weight. I came from a 3-4 defense, so I was about 330 pounds. He told me, 'You gotta lose weight.' And me, the player I am, I don't give coaches or anybody a reason to not like me or not give me an opportunity," Woods said.
Coach Marinelli gave him target weights to hit during points of the offseason, so he could gradually work himself to a certain playing weight over an extended period of time. Woods had other plans.
"I showed up to camp at that 'first game' weight. Just to show him how serious I was," Woods said.
"That's unbelievable. It tells me something," said Marinelli. "Do you know how hard that is to do, as a heavy guy?"
Marinelli stopped conversation, as if to dust off his early recollections of Woods.
"Fourth string, and overweight," Marinelli shook his head. "He had a heck of a start at training camp."
That level of intricacy, attention to detail, and dedication to execution echoes through everything this defense has stood for in 2018. No yards after catch. No blown coverages. Eliminating those back-breaking plays of the past. Woods let the coaches know during his first practice, he wasn't going to be left out of any of these plans.
"The first day I came for camp in Oxnard, I was fourth string. I kinda reflected back like, 'Dang. Do I pout, do I complain walking around like something's wrong, or do I walk around and make them know?' I told (defensive tackles) coach [Leon Lett], 'Man, fourth string. I ain't never been there before. Even as I got to college. I mean I was always at least third!'
Coaches, media, and even fans began to take notice of his tenacity as training camp unfolded.
"He's mobile, agile, has great feet and quickness," five-time Super Bowler Charles Haley says of Woods. "He has a violence to him."
Seeing his name listed fourth on the depth chart hit Woods deep. "I used it as motivation and I told Coach, 'Don't blink, before you know it I'm going to be at the top of that depth chart.'"
"I don't care what anyone says," Marinelli said. "This system fits him. His football IQ is off the charts. His football awareness is absolutely an 'A'."
"It's a great story," Head Coach Jason Garrett said. "It's a great story for our team and organization. The players hear me say this all the time. It really doesn't matter where you came from, when you were drafted, what school you went to. What matters is what you do when you get here, and he's a great example of that."
The summer sun set a few times, we all blinked, and here we are. The Dallas Cowboys have catapulted themselves into the playoff race after winning five straight games. They've got the rest of the NFC East behind them, yet they're still standing with their backs still against the wall.
After showing out in training camp, Woods has started 12 of 13 games for Dallas, and has been a dominant force up the middle. He's become a staple not only in his own right, but picking up slack for injuries to David Irving and Maliek Collins throughout the season.
"It's a meritocracy," Garrett said. "He's gotten to where he is based on the merits. How he comes to practice, the plays he's made, the impact he's had in games, he was outstanding against [the Eagles] the other day. He got one of the game balls on defense."
The groundwork for the success in December was laid months ago. This defense – these linemen – have planted their goals, tended to the soil, watered it day in and day out, so that we can all enjoy the fruits of their labor.
"The identity we have as the Hot Boyz, it's just holding each other accountable. Whether it's Thursday night dinner and making sure everyone is there no matter what, whether it's making sure I'm in my gap, making sure D-Law is doing his job, it's just the accountability we have for each other," Woods explained.
He wouldn't be on a roster, and had the chance to jump the depth chart, to being on the field on Sundays, to becoming a fan favorite – without choosing to ignore the tough stuff. Tough stuff like, not being drafted out of USC. "I have never in my life felt so down. I was hurt. I'm not gonna lie, I shed tears," Woods remembered.
That choice has played a small part in the unifying of one of the league's tightest-knit groups.
"I think our guys see what he can bring to the table," Garrett said. "I think he's been inspired by that. We aren't looking at how tall he is, how long his arms are, we're looking at what he does."
"It's kind of amazing, that everyone can critique each other and be on each other tough," Woods said. "We are hard on each other. Sometimes, it may seem uncomfortable because everybody has pride. But we don't let that get in the way. We're developing a brotherhood, and that's why we play well."
It's not just Woods benefiting from the ways of Coach Marinelli, it's the entire unit of defense. Marinelli is their difference maker.
"That's one thing about Marinelli, he knows his players," Woods said. "He knows how to work, how to push certain players, how certain players react to certain situations."
Marinelli deserves credit for a skill only the greatest coaches have: knowing his players. For Woods, it was all the difference. And it was from the moment they met.
"I look at each individual player, and I coach them to what they can become," Marinelli said. "Of course, we have our standards and expectations, and no excuses. I don't coach to the floor," Marinelli said, pointing upward. "I coach them to the ceiling, then we knock that ceiling off."