Marinelli gets his due
What has the defensive coordinator meant to the Bears? Let Lovie Smith count the ways
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Take a seat and relax.
That was the suggestion of Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith, because it could take him a while to explain Rod Marinelli's impact on the team.
"How much time do you have?" Smith asked when questioned about Marinelli's value.
Promoted to defensive coordinator after spending last year -- his first with the Bears -- as defensive line coach, Marinelli brings an exhaustive focus on fundamentals and an intuitive feel for play calling to a unit that finished 2009 ranked near the bottom of the league in four major categories (23rd in rush defense, 24th in first-downs allowed, 21st in points allowed, 27th on third down).
The current incarnation of Chicago's defense finished the regular season in the top 10 in all but two statistical categories (20th in passing yards per game and 21st in sacks per pass), and serves as the backbone for a Bears team hosting the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday in the NFC divisional playoffs.
The obvious upgrades in talent can be cited as a major factor in the team's turnaround on defense, but Marinelli's game-day play calling and influence on the team at meetings during the week are arguably more significant.
"I've known Rod a long time," Smith said. "He is one of the best leaders I've been around. Any group, he's comfortable in every environment. But with our football players, what he's done with our defense of just giving them something to stand on. Our beliefs, of course, are the same [in that] you win games first off with fundamentals, getting guys to buy into being a teammate, and doing their job every snap.
"He's allowed me to move to other areas because I trust him so much, whether it's calling plays on game day, motivating the guys on Saturday, or just throughout the week. Everything you're looking for a coach is in him."
Several players talk about Marinelli in meetings rehashing the same subjects over and over again, drilling them exhaustively to the point that most of those things morph to become second nature in game situations.
The players also point to Marinelli's motivational tactics -- he puts together a video to pump up the defense before every game -- and strict adherence to accountability in describing the coach's worth.
"It's exciting, just fun to play for him, man," safety Chris Harris said. "He's one of those guys that treats you like a man. But he does a great job of calling games, by getting a feel for how everything's going. He's an excellent motivator, who really knows what's going on in the game of football, and the fact he holds everyone accountable is one of the biggest assets he's brought to this defense."
It's up for debate as to whether Marinelli's attributes can carry the Bears through the postseason to the Super Bowl. But in the most clutch of circumstances, it's fundamentals that players lean on to carry them through, which isn't a fact lost among the Bears.
"That's one of the things we pride ourselves on," cornerback Charles Tillman said. "People have been dogging us all year, the last couple of years, [saying] 'Why are you running Cover 2?' All these NFL analysts, [saying] 'It's not a good defense.' But here we are. We're running it, and look where it's gotten us."
Smith was reluctant to provide a rundown of all of Marinelli's positive attributes, saying to do that would diminish the impact the defensive coordinator has made on the Bears. Marinelli, meanwhile, tends to deflect any attention he receives, calling the team -- particularly the defense -- a reflection of Smith.
"We don't have any major ups or downs," Marinelli said. "It's consistency, and it starts at the top. Lovie shows that."
Smith called the defense in 2009, resulting in up-and-down performances, partially because of the coach having to split time between the defense and other areas on the team. With someone Smith has "known forever" and trusts in place such as Marinelli, the head coach can take time covering the entire team instead of focusing solely on one unit.
"When you want to see exactly what a guy is doing and what he means to your program, start talking to the players instead of me," Smith said. "Ask a Julius Peppers what Rod Marinelli has brought to us. Ask a Brian Urlacher or a Charles Tillman. Go down the line and you're going to get the same answers from everyone."
Michael C. Wright covers the Bears for ESPNChicago.com and ESPN 1000.