Nick Saban played a big role in bringing Rolando McClain to Dallas, and not just in recent weeks.
Earlier this year, Todd Archer of ESPNDallas wrote that Garrett considers Saban one of his mentors. Saban and Jason Garrett have a relationship that dates back to when Saban was the head coach of the Miami Dolphins from 2005-06, and Garrett was the QB coach there. Saban originally brought McClain to Garrett's attention during a visit a few years back, during which Saban was highly complimentary of McClain
"I’m excited about Rolando McClain," Garrett said per Rowan Kavner of DallasCowboys.com. "Obviously, he played for Coach Saban at Alabama, and I went down there, I think it was maybe 2009, and he was a sophomore I believe at the time. I can remember being there for spring practice and Coach Saban just talking about how much he liked this kid, this big middle linebacker that he had, and he literally said to me at the time, ‘He might be one of the best players I’ve ever coached.’
"When a guy like that says that, who’s been around for as long as he has and has so many good players, it kind of gets your attention," Garrett said per Tim MacMahon of ESPN Dallas. "So I can remember watching him in college and certainly we evaluated him very closely coming out. He was a top-10 pick by the Raiders when he came out of school and someone who has an immense amount of ability and, more than that, production. He was a really, really good college player and I think people have a lot of hopes for him as a pro player."
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 we know that they were suitably impressed with McClain's potential at the time, but McClain's NFL career never lived up to his potential.
Our own Dave Halprin predicted that Saban had played a role in the Cowboys bringing McClain to Dallas when the news broke about the trade.
The Dallas Cowboys have traded for talented but troubled linebacker Rolando McClain, essentially hoping that some combination of coaches and players within the Cowboys organization can somehow unleash the potential of a player who was once a top-10 first-round pick who played for a demanding perfectionist in college, Nick Saban. And just maybe that is where the nexus of this recent move germinated. Saban was the head coach on the first coaching staff Jason Garrett was a part of, back in Miami in 2005. Saban was also McClain's coach back in Alabama.
I wouldn't be surprised if Garrett talked to Saban about McClain.
With Sean Lee's season-ending injury on the first day of OTAs, the Cowboys remembered McClain (who had by then already retired from the NFL - twice), and Garrett once again reached out to Nick Saban.
"I had a great visit with coach Saban about it," Garrett told the Dallas Morning News. "He talked about his recent relationship with him and what he felt like was going on with him. When it's a low-risk situation and he has the talent and he has the endorsement from coach Saban and others, you say, 'Let's give this guy a shot.'"
McClain is far from a sure thing, as it will take a lot of work to get him back to where he is physically and mentally ready to play in the NFL again. For one thing, he's off to Alabama for a court date on Friday, after which he'll rejoin the team sometime during the weekend. More importantly though is the question about whether McClain can get his mind back into a game he twice retired from. But the Cowboys have done their due diligence on McClain, both on their own and via Nick Saban, and are hopeful that they can help him get back to playing at the level they one thought him capable of.
"I think people had a lot of hopes for him as a pro player, and certainly, he's had some issues since he's been in the NFL," Garrett said during the Cowboys' inaugural training camp press conference in Oxnard. "Played for a couple of years, retired, unretired. And the research that we did, the due diligence that we did, both with coach Saban and other people who have been around him, we felt like with his ability with the kind of person that he's demonstrated himself to be in the past, maybe we can help him through some of these issues that he has and get this guy back playing at the level we all thought he was capable of playing. He's still 24, 25 years old."
"I think some of the concerns that he had in retiring and unretiring had to do with family situations, so hopefully he has some of those resolved and we can help him through some of those things and give him a chance," Garrett said. "The deal we made with Baltimore was not one that was with a tremendous amount of risk. Obviously with Sean Lee’s absence, we’re looking for help and competition at the linebacker position. We feel like we have a lot of guys in-house. We always look at the landscape of personnel around the league, who we can bring in to help. We felt like he was a guy who was a very viable candidate, really excited to see him play."
If the Cowboys and McClain himself manage to activate the potential the player undoubtedly has - and if he doesn't retire again - this could turn into a big win for both the Cowboys and McClain.