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What Is The Cowboys' Real Plan For Rolando McClain?

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Dallas has been playing hardball with its own free agents. Does this mean the team is moving on from the linebacker, or is there still a good chance he returns?

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The short career of Rolando McClain as a member of the Dallas Cowboys has been dizzying. Most observers scoffed when the Cowboys signed the player with the checkered history as an emergency hire due to the loss of Sean Lee to injury in the offseason. But he hit the field, and the opposing teams, with a big impact. He played a key role in the 2014 season, exceeding almost all expectations and helping the defense be much better than the "worst in the league" projections that so many people are hoping will be quickly forgotten.

With the expected return of Lee, fans were excited by the prospect of McClain holding down the middle and Lee moving to the weakside, where it was hoped he would not get banged up as much.

But McClain's year was not without its own injury problems. He missed three games, and was clearly limited in others as the season wore on. And as free agency got underway, fans waited in vain for word that the Cowboys has re-signed him.

Now there is speculation, from Mike Fisher, that McClain and the Cowboys might be about to part ways.

In addition to the usual contractual issues — money and years — this is about trust and reliability. Sources tell me the Cowboys staff felt hamstrung by McClain's occasional availability, by having to wonder if his body and his psyche were always willing.

But at the NFL owners' meeting, word has come out that things may not be over.

Where is the truth in all this? There certainly seems to be a pretty hard ceiling for how much the Cowboys are willing to pay McClain, as there was when the team did not step up to retain DeMarco Murray over the same issue. The team has certainly been very disciplined so far in free agency, and if there is indeed a chance for McClain to wear the Star in 2015, then it will be on the team's terms.

But is the interest that real? Both Garrett and Jones have been known to be a little less than completely forthcoming about things, and neither is prone to bad-mouthing players even when the team is not going to retain them. And there are a couple of things that argue that the team has very limited interest in keeping McClain, if it exists at all.

The first is the money the team has invested in free agent linebacker Jasper Brinkley, who would also be a candidate to take the Mike spot to let Lee move outside.  He is guaranteed $2 million of his total $6 million deal, and that does not look like the kind of dough you pay a backup.

The second involves the implication that the team has some trust issues. This one struck me because of a conversation I had several weeks ago with someone who has some contact with the coaching staff. He said that there was at least one player on the roster that was suspected to have milked an injury because he was not eager to get back on the field. I got no name at the time but there are some obvious dots to connect.

McClain was always a bit of a risk, given his history. It certainly paid off for the Cowboys. but that does not mean that the staff is going to overlook warning signs that he may not be as valuable next season. And when so many of the Cowboys' free agents have already found new teams, it is significant that McClain has not already found greener pastures.

Although there may be a price at which the Cowboys will bring McClain back, that is not a given. It may be that the same issues that led him to retire twice are still affecting him. With the controversy and potential distractions the Cowboys already are facing this year, McClain may have become one headache the team just does not have the tolerance for anymore.

Follow me @TomRyleBTB