- Jean-Jacques Taylor, ESPN Staff Writer
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IRVING, Texas -- Rod Marinelli is a terrific defensive line coach, and he proved it again this season by working miracles with an injury-ravaged unit that used 20 different defensive linemen this season.
On several occasions, the Dallas Cowboys signed a defensive lineman seemingly off the streets on a Tuesday, and he played meaningful snaps five days later, a testament to Marinelli.
By all accounts, the Vietnam veteran is a good man.
One of his closest friends, Lovie Smith, has been named head coach in Tampa Bay. The men worked together as assistants in Tampa Bay and Marinelli worked for Smith, when he was Chicago's head coach.
No one is surprised Smith reportedly wants Marinelli to join him in Tampa.
Too bad. This isn't personal; it's business.
Marinelli is under contract with the Cowboys, and they'd have to be the dumbest organization in all of professional sports to let Marinelli leave just so he can work with his buddy.
The Cowboys should make Marinelli their defensive coordinator, though there have been some whispers at the club's Valley Ranch training complex that he prefers to work with the defensive line instead of developing a weekly game plan.
There's a chance Marinelli might be upset because he can't join Smith, but as mama used to say, "Into every life a little rain must fall."
Besides, Marinelli is reportedly being paid a little more than $1 million, and there's no indication he would give less than his absolute best just because the Cowboys denied a request to join his friend.
Remember, former special teams coach Joe DiCamillis wasn't thrilled last season when the Cowboys denied Oakland permission to talk to him before the season. Neither was Tony Sparano when the Cowboys wouldn't let him go to New Orleans when the Saints hired Sean Payton in 2006.
The business part didn't affect either man's passion for his job.
Understand, Marinelli is the best candidate to replace Monte Kiffin as coordinator -- no way the Cowboys bring him back, right? -- but if the Cowboys opt to let him leave, plenty of quality candidates exist.
Former head coaches Leslie Frazier (Minnesota) and Jim Schwartz (Detroit) were fired this week and have excelled as defensive coordinators in the 4-3 scheme.
Tampa Bay has fired Greg Schiano, which means former Cowboys defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt should be free. So should former Cowboys defensive back Ray Horton after Cleveland coach Rob Chudzinski was been fired. Washington's Rahim Morris should also be available after coach Mike Shanahan was been fired.
Whether he's the defensive coordinator or the defensive line coach, if the Cowboys let Marinelli leave, he's too valuable to go without the Cowboys getting some type of compensation. More important, Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett must have a replacement who either has agreed to terms or signed a contract before they even consider a staff without Marinelli.
If Tampa Bay wants to give the Cowboys a fourth-round draft pick for Marinelli, then fine. But the best move for the Cowboys is to persuade Marinelli to become the coordinator.
That's because he made a tangible impact on the Cowboys' defense, which forced 28 turnovers this season.
We know the Cowboys' defense was awful overall, but the unit played with a relentless effort all season. By the middle of October, it was common to see a defensive lineman rush the passer, turn and sprint 30 yards and get in on a tackle.
Jeff Heath's fumble return against the New York Giants in November was a perfect illustration of what Marinelli brought to the Cowboys' defense.
New York receiver Victor Cruz caught a short pass along the sideline, and cornerback Orlando Scandrick stopped him and started tugging at the ball. Linebacker Kyle Wilber sprinted over and hit Cruz. Then Heath ran to the ball. He arrived just as Scrandrick ripped the ball from the receiver's arms.
Heath snatched it out of the air and returned it 50 yards for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead in the Cowboys' 24-21 victory. The play occurred because Marinelli had demanded players attack the ball every play since offseason workouts began.
Critics would argue the Cowboys had one of the worst defenses in NFL history with Marinelli on the staff, so can he truly be that valuable?
Don't forget, when Marinelli took this job, he figured Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Ware would be his starting defensive ends, Jason Hatcher and Jay Ratliff would be his defensive tackles, and Tyrone Crawford would be his top reserve at both end spots.
Spencer (knee), Ratliff (groin) and Crawford (Achilles) never played a down for the Cowboys this season, and Ware played the last half of the season with a groin injury that made him just a guy.
Marinelli squeezed everything he could out of the collection of spare parts he worked with much of the season. It's a testament to Marinelli's ability as a teacher and a coach.
It's why he should replace Kiffin as defensive coordinator.
4dEric D. Williams
4dMel Kiper Jr.