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IRVING, Texas – Rod Marinelli loved his 0-16 season as coach of the Detroit Lions. Same with his first season in Dallas a year ago as one of the architects of a defense that came close to being the worst in NFL history.
Because he's a football lifer who immerses himself in the daily grind of building players, regardless of circumstances. And the Cowboys are benefiting from an unflinching optimism that has fueled a surprising turnaround for the defense, and in turn a fast start for the team.
"I don't think I've ever had a bad year in football," Marinelli said this week as the Cowboys (6-2) prepared for Sunday's game against Arizona (6-1). "Because you are in charge of that yourself. I'm in charge of my emotions and my energy."
Marinelli and Monte Kiffin came to Dallas together last year to switch the Cowboys back to a four-man defensive front with three linebackers after nearly a decade in the 3-4. After they gave up the third-most yards in league history, Marinelli was elevated to defensive coordinator over Kiffin.
So the audience for Marinelli's simple and direct approach expanded from mostly just the defensive linemen, the position he directly coaches, to all the players behind them as well.
"Although the tone is similar to Kiffin as far as the way we hustle and get after the opposing offense, Rod brings that extra maniac level, I guess," cornerback Brandon Carr. "It's fast, intense."
Naturally, Carr was asked to explain the "maniac" thing.
"Let's see," Carr said, pausing. "Nothing ... is ... ever ... good enough for him. That's kind of crazy isn't it?"
Not to Marinelli, whose college career at Cal Lutheran in the early 1970s was interrupted by a tour with the Army in Vietnam. Sure, he's got a little military in him — blunt and demanding. He admits it, but says there's a flip side.
"When I say it's good enough, then it has meaning to it," Marinelli said. "When there's meaning to it — 'I did something well, he acknowledged that' — that's good. And then I correct. Correct, correct, correct. And some guys get sensitive. I don't care. Just correct."
In the offseason, reporters asked Marinelli about linebacker Bruce Carter admitting he lost confidence during the difficult 2013 season.
"I don't do confidence stuff," Marinelli shot back, going on to say "It's a man's game, man."
Marinelli showed the unvarnished version of himself when Tony Dungy was putting together his staff at Tampa Bay in 1996. Dungy was sold during a day in California with the then-Southern Cal assistant.
"His love is I guess what you'd call tough love," Dungy said. "But if you can hang with him, you're going to be a better person, a better man and a better player."
And it's not like Marinelli doesn't have a lighter side. He gives most of his players nicknames — some printable, others not — and shows video clips the night before games, a routine the players call "Marinelli Madness."
Because players don't like to pull back the curtain on their programs, it's hard to get specifics on some of those highlights. But Jeremy Mincey, a seventh-year defensive tackle playing under Marinelli for the first time, said his favorite was a clip of a bull knocking a man to the ground.
"And all of a sudden an imaginary ball come out of the blue and fall — 'That's how you got to get the ball out,'" Mincey said of Marinelli's message. "I thought that was hilarious. He's really good."
So good in Mincey's mind that the former Jacksonville player who went to the Super Bowl with Denver after a midseason trade last year is already putting Marinelli at the top of his list of coaches after less than a season with him.
"He's like a mentor to me," said Mincey, dubbed "Oil Can" because he's the oldest defensive lineman on the team. "It's not all about X's and O's. It's about being a man. He coaches the man first."
Ask Marinelli how he makes such a good first impression, or whether he deserves credit for the defensive turnaround — or if owner Jerry Jones was counting on him to make something of a collection of castoffs and bargains — and he answers with "I just coach ..."
He's also fiercely loyal, which is how he ended up in Dallas. He spent the previous four seasons on Lovie Smith's staff in Chicago, and the Bears wanted him to stay as defensive coordinator after they fired Smith, one of his closest friends. Marinelli chose a lesser title in Dallas, although that changed after just one season.
He had that same loyalty toward his players during the only 0-16 season in NFL history in 2008, which led to his ouster after three years with the Lions.
"I believed in those guys right to the end," Marinelli said. "I couldn't wait to get to practice. You couldn't believe our practices, upbeat, flying around."
That "next practice, next game" approach is what always stood out to Dungy. They went to the playoffs four times in six years together in Tampa Bay before Dungy went to Indianapolis and Marinelli stayed behind.
"If they had another game in that season right now, he would treat that game to be 1-16, just as important as he would a playoff game for the Cowboys, or a Super Bowl," Dungy said. "I mean 0-16 is tough to go through, but if there's anybody I'd want to ride with on an 0-16, it would be a Rod Marinelli because it's not going to get him down."
Nothing ever has in nearly four decades of coaching.
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