A while back, our own Tom Ryle looked at the biggest overachievers on the 2014 Cowboys roster, and it was no surprise to see linebacker Rolando McClain on the shortlist.
Many around the league were laughing at Jerry Jones for trading for McClain last summer. None of them seem to find it very funny right now - especially if they still have Dallas ahead of them on their schedule.
McClain leads the Cowboys with a team-credited 101 tackles and seven tackles for loss. He also grades out as the seventh-best inside linebacker according to Pro Football Focus (PFF) - and that's despite missing two entire games (Week 3 vs Rams and Week 10 vs Jaguars) due to injuries, and nursing a variety of other ailments in other games.
McClain's value to the Cowboys is about more than just a few tackles. When he's healthy and rested, having him in as the middle linebacker doesn't just add speed to that specific spot, but also allows every other defender to play a little bit faster, knowing that nobody needs to worry about the middle of the field in addition to their own duties.
One of the issues that the Cowboys and McClain have struggled with is that he hasn't always been healthy and rested. McClain had been out of football completely for 1.5 years before joining the Cowboys, and despite absolving a full training camp with the team, his body hadn't fully acclimated to the NFL, as evidenced by the many nicks and bruises he's had to fight through.
After getting time to recover during the bye week and sitting out the Jaguars game in London, McClain returned with a bang against the Giants in Week 12. PFF credit McClain with a spectacular outing that included 11 tackles and 10 stops
Rolando McClain, MLB: +5.6. A revelation for the Cowboys this season, McClain registered 10 stops last night proving once again what a valuable addition he has been to this Dallas defense. Came up with a pair of tackles for loss last night and his eight stops in run defense came on just 25 run D snaps, just shy of one stop for every three snaps.
Four days later, with maybe not enough rest, and visibly bothered by yet another injury, McClain disappeared against the Eagles along with the rest of the defense, recording just six tackles and one stop in the Week 13 loss. Todd Archer of ESPN Dallas provides some perspective on that performance:
I don't know if it's multiple injuries or just the knee injury he has been dealing with the last few weeks. He wasn't the same guy against the Eagles that he had been. He was blocked too easily. He didn't move well enough. There has to be some concern there. I mentioned this a few weeks ago that they need to be worried about him because he hasn't played much football in the last two years. He was out of the game last year. Players get used to the pace of a season and know they will have to deal with stuff all year. McClain hasn't really had to deal with it in two years. It's difficult to get back into the flow of things and you know you have to play your best even if you don't feel your best.
A full week later, once again rested and fit, the Rolando McClain from the Giants game showed up against the Chicago Bears, recording 12 tackles and four stops - and again making PFF's shortlist for the Performances of Note:
Rolando McClain, LB: +3.4: Sometimes gambles do payoff. A disappointment in Oakland who has endured legal troubles and a retirement, the Cowboys took a chance that McClain could offer them something without harming the chemistry of the team. To say it has paid off is understatement. Any rust has been well and truly shaken off by now with McClain showing the kind of attributes that made him a first-round pick.
Signature Play: Gets inside the block of Michael Ola with 8.44 to go in Q1 to make a tackle for a loss, reading and reacting to the play before the Bears guard has a chance to slow him down.
10 days after the last game, the Eagles will face a rested and (hopefully) healthy McClain, and if the Giants and Bears games are anything to go by, McClain will be the key to the entire Cowboys defense.
His speed, quickness and ability to get off blocks will be critical in stopping the Eagles ground game, but will be just as critical in getting outside to shut down the perimeter plays the Eagles like so much. With McClain in top form, the Cowboys defense has a chance to contain the Eagles offense, just as they did with Sean Lee (9 tackles, 5 stops) in last year's 17-3 win, and just as the Seahawks did with Bobby Wagner (7 tackles, 5 stops) in last week's 24-14 win.
But he's got to be healthy for that.