In 2012, the Cowboys pro personnel guys faced a daunting task. On multiple occasions, thanks to a staggering run of injuries, a new face would often show up on Wednesday and see meaningful snaps on Sunday. Indeed, this was the second season in a row in which this had been the case; in 2011, the team's pro personnel department sourced unemployed players such as wide receiver Laurent Robinson, fullback Tony Fiammetta, cornerback Frank Walker, running back Sammy Morris and guard Montrae Holland, all of whom helped the team win games at some point.
In 2012, they had to find even more players - and succeeded. Against the Steelers in December, for example, newby defensive backs Michael Coe, Eric Frampton, Charlie Peprah and Sterling Moore, linebackers Ernie Sims and Brady Poppinga, and defensive lineman Brian Schaefering all saw action - and made plays that contributed to a tight, overtime victory. In the aftermath of that win, the Mothership's Bryan Broaddus, a former pro personnel guy for the Cowboys and other teams, wrote, "This job is not as easy as one might expect but Judd Garrett, Will McClay and Henry Sroka have done it better than anyone in the NFL this season."
It certainly seems that the Cowboys felt this way, especially as it pertained to McClay. According to sources, the team denied Cleveland and Kansas City permission to speak with McClay about front-office jobs in those organizations this offseason. Instead, they decided to promote McClay to the most important position in the organization that can be manned by somebody not named Jones. In mid-June, McClay was named the assistant director of player personnel, replacing Tom Ciskowski, who took on an expanded role in the college scouting side (allowing him to spend more time "on the road," scouting, rather than in his office in Valley Ranch).
Who is Will McClay? Well, he's had a varied yet highly successful career. He is a Houstonian who played at Rice, where he was a four-year starter as a defensive back in the mid- to late-80s. In 1988, after completing his college career, McClay played as a wide receiver and defensive back for four seasons for the Arena League's Detroit Drive, where he helped win three AFL titles in four appearances. After that, he went into coaching, serving as Drive's secondary and special teams coaching before moving on to defensive coordinator positions for other AFL teams in the mid-90s.
McClay moved into the management side of football in 1997, in a series of player personnel positions for a variety of Arena League and XFL outfits. He finally made the jump to the NFL in 2001, taking a position as the Jaguars' Assistant Director of Pro Scouting, where his primary responsibility was to collect information on teams that weren't on the Jaguars schedule as a way of keeping tabs on what the rest of the league was doing, and how their players were performing. This proved to be a good training ground for his work in Dallas.
McClay moved to the Cowboys the following year, in a peculiar hybrid position as a personnel guy who also served as the Dallas Desperados' defensive coordinator. In 2004, however, he was thrust into the head coaching position and, as a result, took a hiatus from the scouting side. He was a head coach for five seasons, compiling an overall record of 55-28-1. In 2010, he moved back to the personnel side for the Cowboys, and just in the nick of time, as a team that had been one of the league's healthiest in 2009 and 2010 suddenly felt the terrible sting of the dreaded "regression to the mean."
This year, McClay's presence in his new position was felt almost immediately. Mere weeks after his promotion, a slew of injuries to the team's defensive linemen forced the pro personnel guys to scour the lists of available bodies. He acquired Nick Hayden during the offseason and then, in the first week of training camp, brought George Selvie and Landon Cohen into the fold. Just before the season's opening bell, he supervised a series of deals: trading defensive tackle Sean Lissemore and tight end Dante Rosario for seventh-round draft picks, and bolstering the special teams by picking up special teams aces Kyle Bosworth, Edgar Jones and Caesar Rayford.
During the season, as it became apparent that Anthony Spencer, Jay Ratliff and Ben Bass were done for the year, the pro personnel guys kicked into gear, scouring the land not only for bodies that might help the team during the season, but also players with the potential upside to make an impact in coming seasons. In addition to Selvie, Cohen, Jones and Rayford, every couple of weeks saw them trying out a new player or two, many of who had been first or second day picks for other teams in recent drafts. All in all, 20 different players took at least one defensive line snap in 2013. That's a lot of players for McClay and his guys to study and bring in.
To wit: the defense played a total of 1,141 snaps in 2013. Here are the snap counts of players who were at one time sourced by McClay and his team (I'm not including free agent signees such as Will Allen and Justin Durant in this tally):
821: Nick Hayden
744: George Selvie
380: Ernie Sims
275: Jarius Wynn
254: Drake Nevis
153: Everette Brown
144: Caesar Rayford
117: Corvey Irvin
81: Sterling Moore
72: Edgar Jones
49: David Carter
46: Jason Vega
45: Jerome Long
38: Landon Cohen
34: Frank Kearse
24: Kyle Bosworth
22: Micah Pellerin
20: Everett Dawkins
20: Martez Wilson
15: Marvin Austin
Assuming that the Cowboys had eleven men on the field for every defensive snap, that's a total of 12,551 individual defensive snaps. Of those, 3,354, or an astonishing 26.7%, were taken by players McClay and his team brought in to be worked out and signed. In addition, the Cowboys get 47 snaps from fullback Tyler Clutts, another of McClay's midseason finds.
None of these players were dominant, but the best of them - Hayden, Selvie and, to a surprising degree, Wynn and Nevis - stuck around and accumulated a lot of snaps. And, although they weren't physically overpowering, all of the players who stuck around played hard. Very hard, in fact. As badly as the team struggled on defense, imagine what the situation might have been like had they not landed these players.
I'll take a closer look at the team's injures in the final installment of this series. For now, suffice to say that, without the fine work of the gents in pro personnel, a disappointing 8-8 season could very well have turned into a 4-12 disaster. Want to see what the Cowboys season would have looked like without McClay? Look no further than the disastrous campaigns just endured in Houston and Atlanta, two franchises that suffered a similar loss of an entire position group.
What else do those two teams have in common? Both are picking in the top six in the 2014 draft.