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Dallas Cowboys' Rolando McClain: Comeback Player Of The Year?

Rolando McClain is playing a season that is putting many early doubters to shame.

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Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday last week, we asked you whether Rolando McClain is worthy of a long-term contract. In a landslide, a staggering 2,944 out of 3,133 total respondents (94%) voted "Yes."

That vote of confidence is a direct result of McClain's contributions on the field, which seem to improve from week to week, and demonstrate why McClain was once picked eighth overall in the draft. In fact, with each game that goes by, McClain is making a stronger and stronger case for for the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year Award.

On the day the Cowboys traded for McClain, we wrote that the move had the potential to be a big win for the Cowboys.

We know from the Cowboys' leaked draft board in 2010 that the Cowboys had McClain ranked as the No. 7 player on their board, so if they manage to activate McClain's potential - and if he doesn't retire again - this could turn into a big win for the Cowboys.

Six games into the season, the 25-year old McClain, who had last played NFL football in November 2012, has turned into everything the Cowboys expected - and so much more.

  • According to the official NFL stats, McClain is third on the team with 27 tackles, has one sack, two QB hits, two TFLs, two interceptions and one forced fumble on his stat sheets.
  • The Dallas Cowboys record stats a little differently, and have McClain as their leading tackler with 43 tackles, one sack, four QB pressures, two TFLs, two interceptions and one forced fumble.
  • Pro Football Focus, who also record players-indivdual stats, show McClain with 31 total tackles, one sack, two QB Hits, five QB hurries and two interceptions.

The official NFL stats are compiled by the official NFL scorers in each stadium, who have only the time between plays to record their stats. The Cowboys take their stats from the coaches film, PFF take their stat from the TV broadcast and refine them later with the All 22 film. All come to slightly different results but the same general consensus: Rolando McClain has a had a significant impact for the Cowboys.

But the volume stats above don't really do McClain justice.


Pro Football Focus grades McClain as the third best inside linebacker in the NFL. Thanks in part to his two interceptions, he's the highest-graded linebacker in the league in pass coverage, and that includes 3-4 outside linebackers, 4-3 outside linebackers, and all the inside linebackers in the league. Here's what PFF wrote about McClain after Sunday's game, for which he received a +4.2 grade:

One of the season’s biggest surprises got even bigger on Sunday as McClain continued his strong play in the middle of the Dallas defense. He made an impact in all phases as he graded at +1.8 against the run, +2.5 in coverage, and +0.8 as a pass rusher with two hurries on his three rushes. He beat running back Marshawn Lynch for his two pressures and he continues to make enough plays in coverage to make people forget his first few years in the league.

Signature Plays: McClain’s game-clinching interception is his most notable play as he ran the seam and made a nice play on the ball to secure the turnover at the end of the game. But for those who love hard-nosed football, there wasn’t much better than watching him working downhill on fullback Derrick Coleman at the 4:46 mark of the third quarter, as McClain blew him up, re-directed the run, and shed the block to get in on the tackle.

To date, many Cowboys fans have taken note of McClain primarily as a superb player against the run, but there are more facets to his game, which is why we'll break down his PFF stats in a little more detail below.

Pass Rush

PFF list McClain with one sack, two QB hits, and four QB hurries, which doesn't seem like all that much, until you consider that he rushed the passer on just 13 snaps. According to PFF's Pass Rush Productivity formula [(Sacks+Hits*0.75+Hurries*0.75)/pass rush snaps] that gives McClain a pass rush productivity of 42.3, the highest value of any linebacker (inside or outside, 4-3 or 3-4) who's played at least 50% of his team's defensive snaps.

13 pass rush snaps over the five games he played in isn't all that much, but impacting the QB on every second pass rush snap is very impressive.

Run Stopping

Total tackles are sometimes used as a measure for a player's impact in the running game, but total tackles also include tackles on passing plays, and not all tackles are created equal: a tackle after a 15-yard gain is not the same as a tackle at the line of scrimmage on third down. Which is why PFF has a metric called "stops." Stops are a defensive play that constitutes an offensive failure, i.e. the offense doesn't achieve the average yardage expected for the remaining distance (40% of required yards on first down, 60% of required yards on second down, and 100% of required yards on third down).

According to PFF, McClain has 15 tackles on 81 run snaps. 12 of those tackles counted as a stop, which gives McClain a run stop percentage of 14.8%, the second highest value in the league.

Pass Coverage

Thanks in large part to his two interceptions, McClain has a defensive passer rating of 51.2, the fourth-lowest value among inside linebackers. McClain's pass coverage numbers suffer from small sample sizes issues this early in the season, but the eight receptions he's allowed so far have only averaged 6.5 yards, the fourth lowest value among inside linebackers.


But even this collection of efficiency stats do not paint an accurate picture of McClain and his impact on the Cowboys. Bob Sturm of the Dallas Morning News puts in words what the numbers above cannot do:

There is no question that Rolando McClain is out of this world right now and a devastating force. How he was in retirement is a great mystery to all involved.

McClain's impact on the Cowboys is such that his former college coach Nick Saban had to field questions about McClain in a telephone conference about the the upcoming Texas A&M at Alabama game.

Beyond the stats and the external accolades, perhaps the most important aspect of Rolando McClain's return to football is the impact he's had on his teammates:

  • "He’s like a created player," whose overwhelming skills break the balance of a video game, said cornerback Brandon Carr.
  • "Just his presence is intimidation," safety J.J. Wilcox added.
  • "It was a huge impact," safety Barry Church said of McClain’s absence at the end of the Texans game. "He’s one of the leaders on our defense. He brings that physical nature to every snap, and losing him… it did hurt."
  • "He's an animal, man," cornerback Orlando Scandrick said of McClain after the Seahawks game.

"He's a top-10 pick in the draft and I think we're seeing around here why he was," Stephen Jones said. "He certainly had some things that held him back in his career, but he seems to have put a lot of those things behind him and he looks like a top-10 player. He's making plays like that. He's big, he's physical. As anyone can see who watches the game, when he hits you, you go down. He has range."

Not bad for a player many immediately wrote off when the Cowboys traded for him, and not bad for a front office that was widely ridiculed for the trade.

  • Matt Mosley of Foxsports called the trade a "move that makes no sense," and wrote that he'd be shocked "if McClain makes it through the first week of training camp."
  • Ex-Redskins GM and now NFL columnist Charley Casserly called a the trade for Rolando McClain a "waste of time" and said "I don't think he can play."
  • Bleeding Green Nation, who have an odd fixation with everything remotely Cowboys-related, called the move "beyond perplexing."
  • Eric Edholm of YahooSports didn't try to hide his disdain for the trade: "Jerry Jones just traded for a retired guy. Never change, Jerry."

In any case, if McClain keeps playing at the level he's been playing at - and the Cowboys continue to have success - he'll have a very strong case for the CPOY Award.

[EDIT: The quote below was published after this post went up, but I felt it provides a fitting end to this post, so I'm including it.]

We'll let McClain's current coach, defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli have the last word on McClain:

"How he hits and how he plays, that’s how we want him to play," Marinelli said. "I just think he leads with his play. He’s got rare ability. He is really a terrific leader in his own way. Guys seem to rally around a guy like that, physical presence. He hits. He runs. He likes to practice. He practices hard. He leads by what he does."

"When you really love what you’re doing it just oozes out of you," Marinelli said. "It’s contagious to everybody else. That’s the best type of leadership. You don’t need all the talking. If he needs to talk, he says something. Strong. But mostly it’s about how he plays.

"Just watch the tape."

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