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As the Dallas Cowboys' coaching staff was finalized in early February, it became clear that one specific attribute was valued above all else – passion for the game.
There is little question that recently hired defensive line coach Rod Marinelli fits that criteria perfectly.
"He's a great coach," says new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, who filled the same role in Tampa Bay for 13 years, with Marinelli as his D-Line coach from 1996-2005. "You talk to any player who's played for Rod Marinelli, and they will tell you, it's unbelievable. You ask any of those guys, when you come to work, you better bring your lunch pail with Rod Marinelli."
"He's one of those guys that talks about the greatness of the game of football," adds head coach Jason Garrett, who became acquainted with both Kiffin and Marinelli during his final season as a player with Tampa Bay in 2004. "He talks about preparing the right way. There's great honor in playing and coaching this game and doing it the right way. The way he conducted himself that year that I was around him, was really, really impressive to me. As impressive a football coach as I've ever been around. I think a lot of it has to do with the kind of man that he is. We're very fortunate to have him and I have immense respect for him."
Marinelli, who left his previous job as the Chicago Bears' defensive coordinator to rejoin Kiffin in Dallas, exudes enthusiasm for exploring the intricacies of football as a coach.
"I don't think there's a day that goes by that you're not energized by it," Marinelli says of coaching. "Either you love it forever or it's just a job. And it's about love for me and the opportunity to do it again in this league."
For similar reasons, Marinelli was quite impressed back in 2004 with Garrett, who in beginning his transition from backup quarterback to coach, wound up asking a lot of questions.
"I developed a relationship with him during that 2004 season," Garrett says. "He was a guy that after practice I was tugging on his t-shirt saying, 'Hey, why'd you guys do this? Why'd you guys do that?' And he was always very gracious and generous."
Marinelli immediately noticed that Garrett possessed that same passion and is not at all surprised at his coaching evolution since then.
"Inquisitive, bright, a passion for football – I get close to people like that," Marinelli says of Garrett. "You really have a passion for this game and what it's about, and you could see that fast, that he had an intelligence. You could see that would happen. He's just a terrific coach."
In addition to re-establishing his relationship with Kiffin, Marinelli is also reunited with new special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia, another member of that old Tampa Bay staff that guided the Buccaneers to victory in Super Bowl XXXVII after the 2002 season.
"I think that what we did, and there're a lot of other guys who were there with us, there's a bond for a belief that there's no compromise on," Marinelli says of the trio's shared principles. "There are things that maybe you do differently from year to year or during the year, but that foundation, the fundamentals of what we do, is a core belief for us, and that's kind of nice."
"We're very familiar with each other, we know what we believe in, what the core beliefs are," acknowledges Bisaccia, who spent the previous two seasons in San Diego after coaching in Tampa from 2002-10. "And the core beliefs are running to the football and playing with passion and playing with great energy. Probably the No. 1 thing we all look for are guys that love football. The three of us love football."
As the newly installed defensive staff at Valley Ranch implements a switch from the 3-4 scheme, employed in Dallas since 2005, to a 4-3 system similar to the one innovated by Kiffin in Tampa Bay, Marinelli believes the Cowboys have the qualities to make a smooth conversion.
"I just see some guys that can really run, that are very athletic," Marinelli says. "The transition, you never know, but when you start to look at these guys on tape, they can really run and our system is built on speed, quickness and balance and change of direction and attitude. The fit looks good. It's intriguing and exciting."
And while Marinelli has yet to personally meet his new charges, he has already pored over many hours of game film.
"I like being introduced to men by their tape, and then meet them," he says. "Because their tape is telling you where they are, their tape is their résumé. And now it's my job to clean it up here and there and help them get a little better."
But before he decides which players fit best into the scheme in which capacity, Marinelli needs to see them in action on the practice field.
"What I like to do with these men, first of all, you watch them at work, and then you get them on the field in your drill work, when you're allowed to go on the field in OTAs [Organized Team Activities], and then you see the movement up close and the redirection and what fits them the best," explains the 63-year-old former Vietnam veteran. "I like to watch them. It's like a pass-rusher. I like to see what he likes to do, get a feel and then clean him up. I need to see their bodies move in drill work and then they start fitting in themselves."
With this philosophy, a large proportion of his job relies on effectively communicating the game plan in a way the players can grasp and then execute.
"I think the biggest thing is being a good teacher, being clear and concise in exactly what you want," says Marinelli. "And not say too many words, so the message is simple and direct. And it's about energy, it's about playing hard, about playing physical and about playing fast. And then that comes back to us as teachers – make sure you set the standard and then demand the standard."
To outside observers, it may seem strange that a man who was recently a head coach in Detroit (2006-08), and last served as defensive coordinator and assistant head coach in Chicago, would be willing to step down to being a position coach, but Marinelli's reasons further illustrate why he is of such impeccable character.
His loyalty to former Bears coach Lovie Smith, another member of that late '90s Tampa Bay defensive coaching staff, superseded his desire to remain in Chicago following Smith's firing after last season.
"My No. 1 relationship there was Lovie Smith. He's one of my best friends in life and I believe in him and I went there because of him," Marinelli says of his departure from Chicago, where the Bears surrendered just 17.3 points per game in 2012, third-fewest in the NFL, en route to a 10-6 record. "And it's not the right place for me without him."
Maintaining such close relationships with the other coaches, like his one with Kiffin that helped lure him to Dallas, ultimately translates into the same message being delivered to the players by everyone on the staff.
"Me and Kiff just go back so far, and I just have things I can help with," says Marinelli. "We just clinic each other, about what's good, what's bad. That's how you can quickly bring a staff together because we're talking the same language all the time. Kiff does a great job – we'll go out in the grass, all of us, and talk, and we'll teach our drills to each other. So if there's something that's not right, we'll deal with it there before it gets to the players, so we're all on the same page, all speaking exactly the same language as much as we can."
And even though Marinelli's stint as a head coach with the Lions didn't quite go as well as he'd have liked, he still considers it an important and valuable growth experience. Over three years in Detroit, Marinelli won just 10 games (10-38), culminating with the historic season of futility in 2008 when the Lions went 0-16.
"It was a great experience for me," Marinelli contends. "When I came from Tampa, everything we did worked, so there was a great belief, a great faith in what you're doing, and then I was very fortunate to go through adversity. That's how I look at it. Everything I did didn't work, so everything you believe in was attacked. Well, it's really not a belief unless it has been attacked, and you kind of weather the storm through it all, which I did, and then you come out of it with a stronger belief.
"I was able to go to Chicago with that belief and get it back on track. So that, to me, was a tremendous experience for me in terms of belief. Do you really believe it when it just works, or when it doesn't work? So I look at that as a positive."
Now that he's in Dallas among old friends, Marinelli is happy to write a new chapter with such a storied franchise. [embedded_ad]
"I just love the history of the game of football," says Marinelli, who spent 20 years in various coaching roles at four different colleges before joining the Buccaneers staff in 1996. "When I was in Chicago, the history was there, and then you come here, and it's just like, 'Wow, this is fabulous.' And it's something that as a coach, you have to relate back to the players how fortunate we are to be where we are. There is a history here. And they've got to understand that. There are standards that they have to measure up to."
Demanding that accountability, along with making sure his players are battling with intensity and fervor, is a key aspect of Marinelli's approach and should only help the Cowboys moving forward.