IRVING, Texas – That Rod Marinelli is sitting in his new spacious office, the one coming with the title of defensive coordinator, and quite possibly moaning to himself "why me?" during quiet time would not be totally out of the question.
What timing, huh? To become the fifth Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator since the start of the 2010 season, averaging an unhealthy one a year. Why, he inherits what remains from last year's worst defense in Cowboys history, spanning 54 seasons, a defense that performed worse that the 0-11-1 team from the inaugural 1960 season, worse than the 3-13 team in Tom Landry's final season of 1988, worse than the 1-15 team in Jimmy Johnson's first season of 1989, worse than the 1-7 team of Wade Phillips' final half season in 2010, which grew no better in the second half under Paul Pasqualoni.
Yep, that bad.
Since the promotion, Marinelli has lost his only Pro Bowl defender from last year's 8-8 season, Jason Hatcher leaving in free agency, and watched the front office pull his seven-time Pro Bowl pass rusher, DeMarcus Ware, right out from underneath him for health, age and cap reasons. He waits to see if the Cowboys' one-time Pro Bowl defensive end Anthony Spencer, now a free agent, too, will be healthy enough for the club to entertain re-signing him after last year's microfracture knee surgery. And three of his other would-be defensive starters, Sean Lean, George Selvie and Morris Claiborne, are spending the early part of the offseason rehabbing from surgeries.
OK, Rod, never mind all that, just go do your thing.
Marinelli smiles over the acute circumstances, and in his very soft deliberate speech when asked what's a coach to do, says, "Just make sure you're tightening bolts up, making sure everything is kind of screwed into place first, and to help these guys play fast, play hard."
That is some toolset Marinelli requires, although in fact he still has the emblematic "tool box" in his office he brought over from Chicago where he worked wonders with the Bears defense under Lovie Smith. The guy has never been afraid of hard work, nor, at least publicly, does he sound a discouraging word.
"It's tough. It's tough seeing them go," Marinelli says of Hatcher and Ware, half the Cowboys starting defensive line from last year, while the other projected starting half from last year is in jeopardy of not being here anymore, with Jay Ratliff already in Chicago and Spencer in the aforementioned injury limbo.
"But now it's a time you've got to bring some new faces in, new blood, hopefully some youth in and kind of set the standard for this new group coming up and how they'll play."
So with little time to feel sorry for himself, Marinelli hit the recruiting trail hard, convincing his former Pro Bowl defensive tackle Henry Melton to take a chance on his rehabbing self with the Cowboys instead of Chicago, where the two were together for Melton's first four seasons in the NFL, the first in 2009 spent on injured reserve.
What'd he tell the kid from Grapevine, Texas, the nephew of former NFL corner Ray Crockett, when Melton came on his visit to The Ranch?
"You don't want to know," Marinelli said with a soft laugh, allowing your imagination to wildly wander.
But his take on the guy is rather unique. Oh, yeah, he's quick, powerful, has phenomenal speed and can penetrate, all the stuff we've heard since Melton signed the one-year deal with the Cowboys for $3.5 million, along with a club option for three more years.
This, though, will catch your attention, and give you some insight into how Marinelli works: [embedded_ad]
"To wear the star is something special, and hopefully he can add some juice to the front four and become a leader for us.
"Some places he had an opportunity to go he would have sat in the middle of the bus and been one of the guys. Here, he's got a chance to help us drive the bus, and be in the front. He's always liked the spotlight, so we'll find out."
There is another guy the Cowboys are about to find out about, if he, too, is comfortable being up front, and another reason why maybe Marinelli does not speak those discouraging words despite the predicament he appears to have been vaulted into with this promotion:
Tyrone Crawford, remember him?
Call him the forgotten man. Call him the Cowboys X-factor up front. But any time you ask anyone around The Ranch about the Cowboys' 2012 third-round draft choice out of Boise State, no matter if it's Marinelli, head coach Jason Garrett, assistant defensive line coach Leon Lett or anyone from the scouting department, the first word uttered is "versatility."
Yeah, you remember him, don't you? Crawford, the guy who was coming on at the end of his 2012 rookie season, the same guy who further impressed this staff during last year's OTAs and minicamps, the guy the Cowboys coaches had big plans for in 2013 until …
He tore his Achilles in the very first practice of training camp, no pads, no contact, simply running a drill around blocking dummies. Out for the season, and evidently out of sight, out of mind for those ruminating over the Cowboys' front four dilemma this offseason.
But in the minds of the Cowboys, not only are they hoping to have added a healthy Melton following his ACL repair last October, but also Crawford, who appears to have successfully rehabbed from his Achilles surgery from last summer. His rehab has gone swimmingly, paralleling that of Barry Church's return from the torn Achilles that ended his 2012 season after just three games to become a starting safety last year. Crawford has been running well for some time, and should be ready to go, though under cautious eyes, when offseason workouts officially begin April 21 with the first OTAs not scheduled until the final week in May.
If they are right about Crawford, and he is what he was appearing to be last offseason, then there is another reason the Cowboys won't head into the May 8 NFL Draft absolutely groveling over selecting a defensive lineman in the first round. You know, like pulling their hair out if an Aaron Donald is not available at No. 16 or if there is not a weak-side defensive end type worth taking there at No. 16.
Again, let the professor of D-Line explain.
"When we had the last OTAs, I thought (Crawford) had a terrific camp," Marinelli says of last offseason. "He can play end, and he can also rush inside, he can also be an under-tackle type, so he's got great position flexibility."
So what you think Rod, does Crawford line up at defensive end on the strong side, where Spencer was supposed to play last year and George Selvie ended up playing? In a pinch, is he quick enough to take over Ware's defensive end spot on the weak side? If Melton isn't ready for the start of the season, and no first-round under-tackle is found, can he take Hatcher's vacant spot? Maybe a one-technique designated inside pass rusher?
The standard answer on the fourth day of April is: We'll see.
Crawford is waiting to see, too. His weight is holding steady at 280. If he needs to add five pounds, no sweat. If he needs to get down to 275, totally doable. He's told me he is more comfortable playing at 280, which is where he was closer to by the end of the 2012 season when he began to excel.
Marinelli says the plan for Crawford is this:
"I think with a young player, hopefully you get him into one spot early, just to see him make progress and be comfortable, and then maybe find out other things he might be able to do.
"That will be interesting when we get this thing started, to see where he's comfortable at. … He's got the ability to go inside on third down and rush as part of your nickel package. Brings a lot of flexibility, (that's) really good."
Not sure if any or all of this makes you feel any better about the Cowboys' journey to rebuild their defensive front, but it's a start. They have added Melton, and that's a huge start if he becomes 2012 Pro Bowl defensive tackle Henry Melton who earned himself Chicago's franchise tag the following year. They made a beeline to sign fringe free agents Jerome Mincey and Terrell McClain, the excitement over those signings barely registering a blip on the national radar but much more prominent around here.
And then, don't forget Crawford.
"He's a big athletic man," Marinelli says, "and believe me I've not forgotten him."
Helping him at least to refrain from talking to those office walls.