THE CELEBRATION unfolded all around him, but middle linebacker Rolando McClain needed a minute. He needed 10 minutes, actually, and so he sat at his locker and stared at the wall. Guns N' Roses' "Sweet Child O' Mine" blasted from a portable stereo in the Cowboys' locker room. Dallas owner Jerry Jones wiped sweat from his forehead and winked at reporters. Receiver Dez Bryant yelled something about wearing socks at the beach.
But the 6'4", 259-pound McClain just sat there, silent and unmoved. He looked a lot like football fans across the country who had tried in recent weeks to make sense of something that makes about as much sense as, well, wearing socks at the beach: the suddenly (borderline) formidable Dallas defense.
Last October, McClain was retired. He took classes at Alabama, the school he'd left after his junior year. He fished. He was 24 years old, the eighth pick in the 2010 NFL draft, a guy who had gone from collegiate national champion to notable bust, with stops in Oakland and Baltimore and an array of arrests along the way. He was the guy who walked away, in his own words, "mentally done."
On Sunday, McClain walked away from CenturyLink Field with a football, the one he secured late in the fourth quarter to seal a 30--23 victory over the Seahawks. The defending Super Bowl champions had won 19 of their last 20 home games by an aggregate score of 584--273. Then Dallas came in and seized control of their conference, on their field.
That the decisive play came from a once-retired emergency replacement typifies this Cowboys D. Of the 22 entries on the two-deep roster, just over half were either selected after the fourth round or not at all. None are older than 30. Stars? You'll only find them on helmets.
McClain seemed to be considering all of this at his locker, a wad of chewing tobacco implanted in his cheek, when finally he asked for water and Gatorade. He complained of cramps. His cellphone buzzed and buzzed. He tossed it on a shelf. "God," he said to no one in particular, "is good."
Then: "And so are we."
THE COWBOYS almost sneaked into the playoffs last season despite a defense best described as offensive. They weren't just bad, they were historically inept, yielding the most first downs, passing yards and total yards in team history. The yardage total (6,645) was third worst ever in the NFL. Naturally, they finished dead last in total defense.
To fix those woes, Dallas did ... not much, really. Future Hall of Fame defensive end DeMarcus Ware was allowed to leave in free agency for Denver, sack leader Jason Hatcher for Washington. Middle linebacker Sean Lee was back, but he tore his left ACL in May. The team used its second-round pick on Boise State end DeMarcus Lawrence, but he broke his right foot in July and landed on injured reserve, where he'd later be joined by cornerback Morris Claiborne (torn left patellar tendon).
The Cowboys signed free-agent Bears defensive tackle Henry Melton, whom many considered damaged goods (torn left ACL), and coaxed McClain back onto the football field. Then they turned the D over to Rod Marinelli, the same guy who presided over the 2008 Lions, the only team in NFL history to finish 0--16. It was a defensive restructuring that pointed toward an early '15 draft pick and led pundits to tab Jason Garrett as the coach most likely to get fired. A Week 1 loss to the 49ers only reinforced what seemed obvious: Big D had no D.
Early on Sunday morning, cornerback Orlando Scandrick flipped to ESPN. There was Mike Ditka, who won a Super Bowl in 1986 behind a historically dominant Chicago defense. The old coach started in on the Cowboys' unit. Scandrick turned the television off.
Hours later, after Dallas limited Russell Wilson to 126 passing yards, Scandrick stood at his locker. Someone asked him about the difference between this year's defense and last year's. He started to walk away. "Why do you want to keep talking about last year?" he asked.
Scandrick stopped. "The biggest difference is DeMarcus Ware, Jason Hatcher—they're not here," he said. "But we have good football players. This team had a reputation of underachievers. Now, we don't have all the big names, and we're getting the best out of the names we do have."
That thought wasn't lost on Jones, who might have fired his general manager years ago if the general manager were someone other than himself. To the surprise of no one, he surfaced in the locker room after the victory and settled in front of all the microphones. He was smiling and winking and comparing this win with the best regular-season wins in Cowboys history. August seemed like a lifetime ago. The questions about Tony Romo's end-of-year back surgery, Jones's angst over not drafting Johnny Manziel, the fretting over the defense—none of that mattered. The 5--1 record mattered. The schedule, with three .500-or-below opponents in the next four weeks—that mattered.
"We made some conscious decisions to have the team out there that we have," Jones said. Wink. "When I see us play like that, we've got a chance to line up against anybody and win." Wink. "You need to have some of the honey to come on back. To come up here and beat this Seattle team, that's called some honey coming back." Wink.
IN 2006, Detroit needed a coach. General manager Matt Millen's search led him to Tampa Bay, where in the previous 10 seasons the defensive line had racked up an NFL-high 328½ sacks. The man responsible for that unit had played football at Utah and California Lutheran, served in Vietnam and coached for more than four decades. That was Rod Marinelli, and he fascinated Millen. "Best teacher I've ever been around," Millen says.
Marinelli loved military and football history. He cited Genghis Khan, Knute Rockne and Pop Warner in his team speeches. He studied not just his players but how they learned—whether they needed to see something, or to hear it, or to walk through it to understand it. He made average players better and very good ones great.
This year marks Marinelli's 41st as a football coach, but it is one season, that epically awful 2008 campaign, for which he is most often remembered. "He gets dumped on," Millen says. "We were 0--16. Look, things happen. But I watched that Dallas defense, and I can see Rod's fingerprints all over it."
After he was promoted from defensive line coach to coordinator last January, players say Marinelli simplified the Cowboys' approach, another example of addition by subtraction. He emphasized the smallest details: schedules planned to the minute, proper footwork laid out for each step, everything technical, precise. He didn't overload the playbook with concepts. He wanted the Cowboys to do a few things really well. "It doesn't take a football guru or a rocket scientist to figure out what's going on," Scandrick says of the new defense. Marinelli had signs hung throughout the practice facility that read PHYSICAL. That's the brand.
And the scheme? Fans often mistake this Cowboys defense for the Tampa Two that the Buccaneers made famous, simply because Marinelli worked there. It's not. Dallas plays Cover Two in obvious passing situations, but it's more reliant on a Cover Three, with a single-high zone base. Marinelli's cornerbacks on the outside have the option of press coverage at the line, all the better to disrupt timing and bump receivers off their routes. The Cowboys rarely disguise their defense, and they barely use any gimmicks. Simple concept, good discipline, solid fundamentals—that's both the Dallas defense and the Marinelli way.
When Jones called Sunday's win over Seattle a "coaches' victory," he spoke to Marinelli's influence. "He's indispensable," Jones said. "His spirit, the way he expresses himself, what he asks of his players, has impacted the entire team."
THE COWBOYS won three Super Bowls in the 1990s behind an offense stocked with Hall of Famers, with Troy Aikman throwing touchdowns to Michael Irvin and handing off to Emmitt Smith. Those teams weren't known for defense. But those defenses were formidable in their own right.
The modern Cowboys—Mediocrity's Team, the one that finished 8--8 in each of the past three years—were constructed the same way, offense first. It has felt as if Romo & Co. has had to carry them to victory every week. (Wasn't that why the QB's back gave out?) And though that offensive focus remains evident this season, as running back DeMarco Murray leads the NFL in rushing yards (785) behind a line bolstered with first-round draft picks, this D has shown that, sure, it may not win games, but it won't lose them. "We were better offensively [last year] than we were in previous years," says Romo. "Our defense just needed to take that same step. They're doing that this year." (If there's reason to be skeptical, it starts with the schedule: Dallas's first six opponents rank no higher than 12th in points per game, and elite offenses like the Colts', Bears' and Eagles'—twice—loom.)
The Dallas defenders approached the Seahawks intent on forcing Wilson to beat them with his arm; the QB had set a Monday Night Football record by scrambling for 122 yards against the Redskins earlier in the week. They kept him inside, relegating him to the pocket. (Wilson rushed only twice, although once for a touchdown, on the exact kind of play—a sprint around the left end—that the Cowboys otherwise contained.) It was the type of defensive effort that wins big games: Marshawn Lynch produced a season-low 62 total yards; Percy Harvin caught three balls but didn't gain a foot. Afterward, starting free safety Barry Church called this the best performance by a Dallas secondary since he arrived undrafted from Toledo in 2010. And whereas last year, Cowboys fans were swearing at the defense, this time it was Seattle receiver Doug Baldwin dropping f-bombs in postgame interviews.
The NFC appears wide open, with just two other one-loss teams, the Cardinals and the Eagles. Dallas has looked as good as anyone, as complete as anyone, and a win in Seattle bolstered an argument that no one expected to make this season: that the Cowboys could be a Super Bowl contender. That idea hinges on the defense, on a middle linebacker persuaded to come out of retirement and a coordinator who once lost every game of an entire season.
"Are people looking at us different now?" asks linebacker Justin Durant. "I hope not. I hope they see us the same way."
Few teams have as many defensive contributors (minimum: one tackle) who were either chosen after the fourth round or entered the league undrafted:
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
ALL BROKEN UP Cornerback Sterling Moore—another undrafted free agent out of college—helped hold Seattle to 126 passing yards.