IRVING, Texas – Maybe for the time being, as difficult as this might be, my unofficially given title as *the voice of reason *when pertaining to all-things Cowboys can be relinquished.
A new voice has emerged this first week of OTA practices. His credentials are impeccable, qualifying him as a reasonable thinker.
Why, he is going on 66 years of age. He played the game four years in college. He coached college ball for 20 years. He's beginning his 20th season in the NFL. Been a defensive line coach, head coach and defensive coordinator. He's forgotten – but not much – more than most think they know. Probably seen it all.
You know him well – Rod Marinelli. Soft-spoken off the field and during interviews, but man, don't cross him or lollygag on the field of play. You don't even want to know.
All the Cowboys have done so far in preparing for the 2015 season is complete one rookie minicamp and the first week of three, three-day weeks of Organized Team Activity sessions out here at The Ranch. But it's already started, with the fans and media alike.
Boy, this is an improved defense has been the rhetoric, however premature that might be, since the fans have yet to witness a practice and members of the media just one with the 90-man roster participating. Paper can be deceiving.
Now, it's no secret the Cowboys defensively were better last year than they were the previous year when finishing dead last in total defense. That's 32nd out of 32 teams in 2013, giving up the most single-season yards in franchise history. They moved up 13 spots last year to 19th, still below average.
And it's also no secret the Dallas finished 28th in sacks last year with the nice symmetrical number of 28, the fewest the team has recorded in a single season since the 24 of 2002.
No secret, too, the Cowboys have spent a bundle of resources, both draft choices and cap space, to repair the defensive line. Especially the defensive end position, which had fallen by the wayside since DeMarcus Ware started breaking down and the Cowboys then took a preemptive strike by releasing him last offseason.
For accounting purposes:
Signed former Pro Bowler Greg Hardy, although he played only one game last season and went through an appeals process on Thursday of his 10-game suspension for what the NFL has termed "conduct detrimental to the league" for his involvement in that domestic abuse charge last year in Charlotte, N.C. Who knows at this point how many games he will be eligible to play? Maybe we'll find out by next week, as long as an unfavorable result doesn't result in a court-case filing.
Drafted Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory with a second-round pick, the rookie exhibiting encouraging signs in Wednesday's OTA, but having yet to even play a down in the NFL. And remember, he played just one year of junior college ball and one two at Nebraska, with a knee injury limiting his availability this past season.
Drafted Boise State defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence last year by using a third-round pick to move up higher in the second. But thanks to breaking a bone in his foot during the 2014 training camp, he has only seven NFL regular-season games to his credit, nearly rendering him a newcomer, too.
Signed Jeremy Mincey last year to a two-year deal, and although he led the Cowboys in sacks last season, his modest six were the fewest to top the team since Greg Ellis finished with six in 2001. Their six-packs of sacks are the fewest in franchise history since sacks became an official NFL stat in 1982, and needless to say, the fewest since Bob Lilly led the team with five in 1963, certainly giving you pause.
Drafted Ben Gardner last year with one of five seventh-round picks; drafted Ryan Russell with a fifth this year; and along the way have acquired the rights to Jack Crawford (though he was at DT this week), Lavar Edwards, Kenneth Boatright and Efe Obada, the Brit who is new to the game of American Football.
So granted, encouraging … on paper. The Cowboys do have candidates, and likely won't wind up in such dire need for a defensive end as they did two summers ago when they signed George Selvie off his couch and ended up starting him on the left side the past two seasons.
Marinelli did sound encouraged, talking about the attributes of Hardy and Lawrence and Gregory and Mincey, but would qualify his and everyone else's budding enthusiasm with …
"We're rushing the air pretty good, but when we get in pads, that's when it counts … we're beating air."
As he walked off from the group of media, we made small talk, told him he made me laugh with the "air" comment, and he's goes, "I knew you'd like that, didn't you? We're whippin' the air."
You get it, right? No sense getting ahead of themselves, getting all excited when practicing in just helmets, jerseys and shorts. Contact is highly minimal, and these team drills are tough on the O-linemen playing without pads on their shoulders or malice in their souls. They are schooled to temper normal physicality. Might as well be shadow boxing.
But, if nothing else, at least there is legitimate optimism, these guys exhibiting obvious traits during the early going that at least they can defeat "air."
Of Hardy, Marinelli says he's been impressed with "how he attacks every drill. He comes out here and goes to work. … He has more (and making a woofing sound) suddenness, awareness," the same quality elevating Charles Haley to Pro Football Hall of Fame status some 20 years ago.
Of Lawrence, Marinelli refers back to the Detroit playoff game when his rookie DE recovered what could have been a game-ending fumble only to fumble the ball back to the Lions in his ill-advised enthusiasm to advance the ball, but came back several plays later with the sack-fumble-recovery to close out the victory. "He just didn't go down, didn't go in the tank. … Now he's rushing the wind pretty good."
And of the newcomer Gregory, Marinelli says he likes "his movement, his speed, has nice instincts, but we're in underwear."
Marinelli is not a party-pooper. Just realistic.
Ask the eight-year veteran Mincey for a quick assessment of the new guys, and he's quite succinct:
Of Hardy, "He's a lion."
Of Gregory, "He's quicker than a cat. He can contort his body like a rubber band. … He's a walking rubber band," which might be the impetus needed for Marinelli, he of the nicknames, to tag Gregory with *Rubberband Man *since he should be familiar with The Spinners work.
Or take rookie La'el Collins' view of Gregory, his pre-draft workout partner since they had the same agent: "Freakish athlete. When he gets going, at his size, his build, it's unheard of how he can run and jump."
So there you go, three non-padded OTA workouts in. Three more in each of the coming two weeks, followed by a minicamp, with the opening to training camp practices not until July 30.
While certainly encouraging signs the Cowboys might rush the quarterback much better than last season, maybe now able get to the one-legged Aaron Rodgers more than once in 35 playoff pass attempts (316 yards, three touchdowns), just remember of the three guys they are counting on the most, aside from Mincey, one is battling a 10-game suspension with hopes of at least cutting that in half, one has all of one NFL regular-season sack and the other has yet to take his first NFL snap. The threesomes' 2014 NFL regular-season sack total is 2.
Beware counting chickens before they hatch, right Rod? Er, getting all lathered up over sacks versus "air," right Rod?
And that restraint's more than reasonable.