With the reduction of the Greg Hardy suspension, he and Rolando McClain are now both expected to be returning to the lineup for the Dallas Cowboys in week five of the NFL season, just in time to face the New England Patriots. Hardy might get his suspension reduced further, but for now the plans are going to be based on four weeks. The expectation is that their return will give an immediate turbo-boost to the defense. They are possibly the two most talented defenders the team has.
In the OTAs and minicamp, Hardy's desire to play was evident, and this was when he was still facing a ten game suspension. He has an opportunity to resurrect a career that was seriously threatened by the domestic violence incident. All signs are that he is putting all the effort he can on the field, and if he can similarly reform his off-field behavior, he could turn out to be a very valuable signing for the Cowboys. They already benefited from McClain in 2014, and hope to see similar impact from him in the last twelve games of this season.
But is this a sure thing? We are all familiar with the history. McClain retired from football twice already. Reports were that he was believed to be "milking" injuries during last season, and he was never the most eager participant in practice. He had surgery just before the OTAs and missed all the voluntary sessions to do his rehab in Alabama. And as Jim Scott pointed out in his article on the way the team is managing the salary cap, McClain is losing a lot of money this year.
The news has not been clear on this, but the four game suspension is a different punishment from the four game fine announced in February. According to a drug policy document on the NFLPA website, the four game fine will be based on last year's pay. Then, separately, McClain will be suspended without pay for four games this season as well. The four game fine may have already been paid out of McClain's signing bonus, or it may come from game checks this year, but he is ultimately losing eight games of pay, at least four of which were known about before his contract was structured. Dallas is forbidden from directly raising his pay to offset this.
For a player who seems to have a problem with motivation, is that going to make him even more of a problem?
The Cowboys have done all they can to give him incentive. They plucked him off his couch and got him back into the game, where he proved that he could not only play, but at times could absolutely blow up offenses. They built his current contract much like Hardy's so that he is partly paid for playing on a game-by-game basis. It is all in his hands now. Unfortunately, he has done very little to inspire confidence that he is going to hit the practice field in Oxnard with the dedication that Jason Garrett and his staff demand of all players.
While I have argued in the past that the team might be better off letting McClain go, that is realistically not something they are going to do - unless he forces their hand. Training camp is going to tell a lot about how much of an issue he may become. Coming off of surgery muddies things a bit. If he claims he is still recovering when the team starts work in Oxnard, it will raise doubts about how genuine his issues are. The worst thing is that no one will know for sure except him. That could put the team in a quandary, especially if he is also limited during the preseason games. Knowing his past history of evading practice but going hard on Sunday, they would have to be really convinced he is going to be a real problem to part ways with him, and that just doesn't seem likely. Since they are out very little money for the games he is suspended, they will almost certainly put him on the roster even if they think he will take a week or two to get ready to play. If he does show up in games the way he did last year, the team will likely put up with his bad practice habits as long as he produces. But if he does not contribute at or near the level he did in 2014, he may be judged to no longer be worth the trouble.
There is also the outside chance that he may decide the reduced money he is set to make is not sufficient for the effort, and a third retirement could ensue. It is not likely, but it is certainly not outside the realm of possibility for him.
All this is based on the reports we see from the guys who actually talk to coaches, staff and players. One that reflects some of the concerns that clearly exist for the team comes from Bob Sturm.
Rolando McClain is a real mystery because the vibes at Valley Ranch tell me of a growing frustrating level. They pulled this guy off his couch last summer, showed patience through camp last year, reaped the benefits of that in the fall (until he got too banged up) and were hoping that 2015 would now be that of a typical NFL player. Instead, it looks like his maintenance level will always be more than they wish to dedicate to a veteran and that will always affect him the most. It seems that the patience level and the question of whether it is worth the trouble is not the same now that Sean Lee is back. I would not assume he will be here all year at this point. He is so good, but at times, his name gets eye rolls from those on the inside.
It is all clearly on McClain's shoulders at this point. As fans of the team who saw how devastating he can be in action, we hope to have more of that this season. But right now, no one knows if he will carry that load or just shrug it off.