NFL coaching changes are typically all-or-nothing affairs. If a head coach gets fired, his coordinators get canned with him. If a coordinator gets fired, his replacement usually brings in an entire new regime.
That wasn’t the case when Jerry Jones hired a new defensive coordinator after the 2013 season.
Instead of bringing in a new regime to revamp his 30th-ranked defence, Jones chose to reshuffle the responsibilities of the coaches he already had in place.
Rod Marinelli was promoted from defensive line coach to defensive coordinator. Monte Kiffin was demoted/reassigned from defensive coordinator to the ambiguous-sounding position of “assistant head coach, defence.”
It’s the same guys working under new titles, but they’re getting very different results. Under Marinelli the Cowboys defence has improved from 30th in DVOA last year to 19th this year.
The offence (which was great last year too) is so good that simply improving from a league-worst defence to a league-average defence has been enough to make Dallas one of the best teams in the NFL at 6-1.
Marinelli is widely considered one of the best defensive coaches in the league. He was the defensive line coach for those Tampa Bay Buccaneers defenses that were so dominant in the late-90s and early-00s.
In 2010 he took over a Bears defence that was ranked 21st in defensive DVOA the year before. Under Marinelli they improved to 4th in 2010, 4th in 2011, and 1st in 2012. While Marinelli crashed and burned as a head coach in Detroit, his record as a defensive coach is impeccable, which made it such a smart move when the Cowboys poached him to be their defensive line coach when the Bears changed coaches in 2013.
The Cowboys were awful on defence last year, and they were expected to be even worse in 2014. The team’s two best pass rushers, DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher, left in the offseason. The team’s best defender, middle linebacker Sean Lean, suffered a season-ending injury over the summer. With no money to spend on free agents to replace them, everyone thought this would be the worst defence in the league.
Instead they have been decidedly, shockingly average. They hit the jackpot on the Rolando McClain trade, but other than that Marinelli is getting good performances out of the same guys who were so bad in 2013.
Even Jerry Jones is surprised. He told a Dallas radio station this week that the Cowboys were “re-everythinging” this offseason, saying, “When we started our training camp, this was going to be one of the most challenging years because we were literally rebuilding, retooling, re-everythinging our defensive line.”
Kiffin, for his part, is still a part of the team. He told the Dallas Morning News in the spring that he’s fine with the the unusual set-up:
“I’m real fired up. I’m not down one bit. I’m really not. I can’t coach that way. I wouldn’t stay here. If I didn’t feel right and I wasn’t going to contribute and it wasn’t going to be a good situation, I promise you I would have moved on. But I really like it here and I like the head coach.”
Marinelli said of Kiffin, “It’s important to state, I don’t think I’ve ever been around a guy that took a bump in the road and his work habits have not changed.”
After years of questionable decisions in the draft and free agency, a bunch of Jones’ moves are working out this year.
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