Marcus Spears finds himself in a tough spot, but he's not to be deterred. The six year veteran has spent his entire career with the Cowboys, but entered this off season on uncertain ground. One of the club's two 2005 first round picks, Spears has endured the CBA turmoil with a slightly different view than some of his counterparts. Last season, as a fifth year vet without a contract, Spears was tendered at his original draft pick level and signed a one-year deal for a little over $1.2 million.
Now, Spears is a man currently without a team. He is an unrestricted free agent during the uncharted waters of an off season yet to have its free agency period. He knows he's not a priority resign for Dallas, as they didn't contact his agent before the lockout was enacted. If the rumors are true and teams will have this week to exclusively talk to their free agents, it's a possibility Spears still won't receive a call. The team could look for their competition to set the market and then decide if they want to formulate an offer.
The lockout has robbed Spears of the opportunity to be courted by other teams as would normally have occurred by now. That's over four months of not knowing the direction of a career. A player in Spears position could easily flip out and go James Harrison, blasting whoever happens to be in range. Harrison had less of a reason. If anyone seems capable of handling the uncertainty though, Spears may be that level headed, reality based guy.
Quiet as kept, Spears was on his way to earning the interest of multiple teams. His start to the 2010 season mirrored several Cowboys, achieving individually while the collective struggled. Playing only 266 snaps, Spears accrued a +8.6 run defense cumulative score in Pro Football Focus' grading. That was earned in only eight games, as a left calf injury eventually landed him on injured reserve.
" It's tough man, 'cause I've never missed a game," Spears said. "I take that back, I missed one game at LSU but I played the first quarter... I had a high ankle sprain; but it's tough. Because it's eight weeks of your life that were planned for football, and then you're not playing anymore. So, it's an abrupt change, and for me never having to go through it.. you know I've been pretty durable. I've had some injuries and stuff in camp that took time to heal, but I always made it back for the season and was able to play at a high level."
"But missing those games was tough, 'cause I'm a team guy, I really am. And I like being out there with my teammates no matter what the situation was. And that probably was the toughest part, to watch those guys go play and not be able to go do anything or try to help."
"But as far as my season man, my season, my career here has been kind of a revolving door. Sometimes people realize what you do well, then sometimes people think you're the first round bust, the worst thing to ever happen to the Cowboys. So I've always tried to keep a level head about it, and go out and do my job. I've started for six years, and I think that says a lot about how you approach your job and what you have to do in order to keep your job and keep competing at a high level. I'm looking forward, if I'm here in Dallas or wherever I am, I'm looking forward to going out there and doing my job, to help a team win a championship."
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Spears is obviously aware of how he is viewed by the fans, and the fact that some expect bigger numbers out of someone with his draft pedigree.
"You know the 3-4 defense, for defensive ends, is not really a defense for you to be the featured guy," he started. "There are guys that are out there that I love and respect the way they play the position, and it's a great opportunity for them. My job has always been, since I've been here, to be effective on run downs, and make the plays that are coming my way. To create holes and gaps for the linebackers to get to the ball, when they gotta go make the play and on occasion, get to the quarterback if it's first or second down. I actually come out passing downs, I'm never in the game when you just pin your ears back and go. So you know, I've had to make do."
Spears' efforts seem to help his teammates do what they do well. Looking at PFF's ratings, Pro Bowl nose tackle Jay Ratliff benefits by being able to play next to Spears. In the seven games prior to the one Spears left with the injury, Ratliff had accrued a +1.4 run rating. Without Spears, Ratliff accrued a -7.7 in the remaining nine games.
"Let me state first, that Jay is a helluva player, I think everyone knows that. But the way this defense is structured, and the way it's set up, you are as good as the guy next to you. That's just the bottom line, you know Jay helps me play better, because teams have to respect him, and vice versa. I think on any given play when you have guys on the field, every offensive coordinator has to pay attention to every guy, I think that helps your defense."
"When a guy goes down or a guy doesn't play, it kind of throws a wrinkle into what you've been doing. I think those guys responded well, I think Bo stepped in and did a good job, but it is affecting when you're not playing with that guy you're used to having (next to you). You build that relationship, it was sometimes that Jay didn't even have to look at me and knew what was gonna happen. And that comes from playing so long and it does make you a better football player."
Fully recovered from his injury, Spears has spent the off season under a normal training routine. At least, as normal as could be had without the structure of the NFL system.
"I've been back in a regular training routine for about two and a half months now. It's kind of that football stuff, it's running and jumping and lifting - making sure that your body is ready for the pounding and ready for the contact. As much as you can simulate it. You know, it's tough to do that when you're not going against guys and hitting them. And it's always football shape when you get to camp, but you want to make sure respiratory wise, limbs and body wise, that you're where you want to be."
"You know it's been an interesting year for me, 'cause I'm gonna be a free agent. You don't know how a team wants you to come in, you don't know what they're looking for you to do, so, I kinda just had to stay prepared for anything. So I think I'm in a position to play anything that needs to be played."
Spears was unable to participate in the touchy, feel good portion of the 2010 season. His calf injury happened against Green Bay, the last game of the Wade Phillips era in Dallas. The change in the team under Jason Garrett was obvious to all observers, including Spears from his unaccustomed sideline perspective.
"You know, to be perfectly honest, I think when you dealing with the type of season that we were dealing with, any change is good. I wouldn't necessarily say that Jason Garrett is a better coach than Wade Phillips, or Wade is a better coach than Jason Garrett, I think time will tell that. I think that the change probably needed to be made and when it did, guys got motivated... and Jason did bring in a good attitude, a good rapport between guys. [He] kinda told guys what was expected, and then good things happened after that."
"They lost some games, but they won some real tough games also. I think time will tell with Coach Garrett. I think the guys responded to him well, liked playing for him, so that's always a plus. That's all you can really ask for as a head coach. Then you install your offense, defense and your philosophy and hopefully guys can carry it on to Sunday."
Spears still has respect for the job Phillips did while steering the Dallas ship, showing an appreciation for the relieved coach.
"With Wade, man, I love Coach Wade. I honestly believe that his way just stopped working. But it definitely worked, I mean we won our first playoff game in 13 years while he was head coach. We did some great things, we had some real good seasons. We never got over the hump, but everybody's hump is the Super Bowl, that's what you're judged by, so we'll see."
Phillips' dismissal and season's end ushered in a new defensive philosophy. Spears doesn't yet know if he fits into this new designer's fall line. Rob Ryan will be calling the plays for the defense in 2011, to which Spears seemed genuinely interested in being a part of.
"I think with Rob Ryan being the new defensive coordinator, he does different things within his defense. You can get creative and do a lot of things to get guys in positions for one on one matchups."
Before the lockout, Ryan was able to give some instructions to a few of the Cowboys defenders under contract. When Tony Romo took the leadership onus this summer to organize team activities, it was an opportunity for the defensive players to walk through the scheme. Spears, however, wasn't able to get the repetitions.
"I'm a free agent so things were a little different. It's kinda been a crazy landscape for me, because you want to be around the guys and doing stuff, but realistically that might not even be your team anymore. It's kind of been a tough deal as far as trying to get that done because you wanna get around guys, get around football. But I didn't participate man, I just kinda put my nose to the grindstone with my trainer and spent time with my family. Just tried to keep my body right for whatever situation I gotta go into."
The uncertainty that came with the lockout goes beyond trying to learn a new scheme for Spears. As a man without a contract, an extended lockout could have easily changed the path of Spears' career. A worst case scenario would have to be envisioned by any practical person; hope for the best, prepare for the worst. In that vein, Spears prepared for the lockout, and isn't ready to start celebrating its rumored conclusion.
"Man, you know, it's actually been going on so long... I don't want to hear nothing until it's done, and we start getting ready to start free agency and all that kind of stuff man," Spears said with a laugh. "But, if it's progress being made, I'm happy about it. But at the end of the day, as a player, you just want to get into camp and get started."
"You know, [some] guys put their own money aside. [The lockout fund] was something that [NFLPA Chief DeMaurice Smith] implemented just in case this thing happened, and I was one of the guys that took part in that, and you know it worked out. Some guys that did that are getting checks every month based on [that] decision. I think it was a smart move by him, especially as unwavering as it was at that time, you had to try to implement some type of system for guys to be able to carry on, because honestly you didn't know how long this thing would go. So, I think what he implemented was a great idea, and I think guys that took advantage of that and took part of that are seeing how important it was to do that. Especially me, I did and it's huge to have income coming in while this stuff is going."
Even with his fiscal strategy, Spears is as eager as all of us for football to return. Whether he plays in Dallas or not seems to be in the hands of Stephen Jones, Jason Garrett and Rob Ryan. Contrary to popular opinion, the team didn't select a defensive end in this past April's draft. For his part, Spears has enjoyed his time in Dallas and would like to return to continue his career if things can be worked out.
"I've always said that I would love to. You know, I could never ever have bitter feelings as far as Dallas... Now, my situation when I made less than my backups, as a man that sticks your pride a little bit, for something like that to happen. But at the end of the day, you kinda got to back track and realize the type of situation you're in. How much of a blessing it is to even play in the NFL, you know, so I went back to that. I paid attention to what I needed to pay attention to as far as getting ready for the season."
"You know, I have no hard feelings man. Dallas took a chance on a kid from Baton Rouge that ain't have much growing up. [I] was able to go to a big time college and play real good football. And they drafted me, so they gave me my first opportunity to live my dream. And that kind of overshadows when bad stuff happens, or what people consider bad stuff. As far as returning, man I would love to. My family is settled, my kids love it here, but at the end of the day, you know change is not bad either."
"When you get to this point, I'm 28, I'm considered still young and kinda in your prime as far as the NFL goes, it's time to capitalize financially and also be with a team with a shot to win. And that's my two goals, and that's what I'm gonna base the decision off of. If Dallas does come with an offer that's feasible and for me to do, and it's a great situation, most definitely."
In closing the interview, we shared a good laugh over the following exchange.
BTB: Definitely appreciate you taking the time, we didn't get to any James Harrison type quotes but I don't think you're the type of cat that would put something like that out there.
Spears: I wont ever do it man. I keep other players names out my mouth whether good or bad. You know if I don't have nothing good to say about you, I'm not gonna say nothing at all. You're not gonna get none of that from me.
That former kid from Baton Rouge seems to understand the rigors of the profession and has chosen to remain upbeat and looking forward to the best. He may have played his final game in Dallas, but he seems to fit the stereotype of Jason Garrett's Right Kind of Guys.