The Dallas Cowboys gave Rolando McClain a chance to redeem himself after the troubled and chaotic beginning of his NFL career. Following the often ineffective results on the field and not one but two retirements from professional football, he was given a one year, "prove-it" contract. Dynamic play at middle linebacker from him was a large factor in the surprising success Dallas had in 2014. He proved he still had it, and the Cowboys gave him another opportunity for 2015.
He has blown it. Another failed drug test, the fourth he has had based on the discipline system the league has in place, should be all the proof needed. McClain is now a liability and he needs to go.
There was ample handwriting on the wall all along. Despite the often devastating plays he made on the field, McClain did not get any serious offers when he became a free agent. And Dallas was in no hurry to sign him, something that puzzled many looking at the situation from the outside. With the clarity of hindsight, it seems that the Cowboys were aware that things were not right with him. This led to them going slow on re-signing him. Once they did bring him back, it was under an easy-to-get-out-of contract that was rather similar to the one they gave Greg Hardy, who was already facing a suspension. Hardy's penalty was administered under the arbitrary domestic violence policy that the league hastily threw together after the Ray Rice debacle. McClain was subject to the much more clearly defined substance abuse policy.
He already faced a four-game fine due to past transgressions. An argument, only somewhat facetious, was made that he was content to have that fine turned into a full suspension rather than play four games without pay to start the season. If that is true, then it is just more justification for letting him go. His fine was the result of his own actions, and taking himself off the field for four games to start the season hurts the team.
The Dallas front office knew they were taking a calculated risk in signing him. His past issues were well known. The team took him on because they were in a somewhat desperate situation. After parting ways with DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher after the 2013 season, expectations of a defensive struggle in 2014 were already widespread. Then, after the prime free agents were already signed and the draft was over, Sean Lee was lost for the year in OTAs. The only significant acquisition at linebacker prior to that was unheralded Anthony Hitchens, who was widely regarded as a reach in the fourth round. Until McClain was signed for training camp, the middle linebacker job was likely going to fall to Justin Durant, in his second year with the team and coming off an injury-plagued season.
For a while, it looked like the Cowboys had pulled it off, as McClain established himself as a force in the middle and Durant got off to an excellent start playing the weakside. But Durant soon was lost to injury. Only the surprising emergence of Hitchens, who wound up starting 11 games (covering all three linebacker positions) in the regular season and both playoff contests, kept the defense afloat. Meanwhile, McClain had injury issues as the season went on, and disturbing reports began to emerge that indicated an unwillingness to practice during the week as well as a suspicion he was milking his injuries.
The Cowboys clearly are willing to take a chance on players with off field issues, but they have a much lower threshold of tolerance for players who don't give a full effort in practice as well as on the field. Cohesion in the locker room is also very important, and the kind of attitude that McClain demonstrates is not useful. Talent does buy a player more leeway, but it only goes so far.
In contrast to last year, Dallas has much better depth at linebacker this season, and that was obviously a priority. The team acquired Jasper Brinkley, one of the primary candidates to take over the middle linebacker job, in free agency, and also brought in Andrew Gachkar and Keith Rivers. Hitchens is also going to be contending for the starting job to start the season. With Lee now slated to be the starter on the weakside, plus the addition of Damien Wilson and Mark Nzeocha in the draft, there is much more to work with. When McClain was still considered the incumbent in the middle, Hitchens was expected to be the starter on the strongside, but Kyle Wilber showed he was capable of handling that position last year, and with the predominance of the nickel package to counter the pass, it is much less crucial. The team also has Cameron Lawrence, Donnie Baggs and Justin Jackson for training camp. The pressing need that led the Cowboys to take the chance on McClain last year is gone. And his dead money is minimal, so there is no economic reason to keep him.
The minuses outweigh the plusses even if he could be relied on to come in and play well the last 12 games of the season. But his history makes that highly questionable. He may well continue to malinger, becoming another of the dreaded "progress stoppers". The team would have to cut someone who really wants to contribute to make room for him after the suspension.
They shouldn't. It is time to, as Dawn Macelli pointed out in an earlier conversation, "send a message to guys like (Randy) Gregory if they decide that Ro-Mac is not worth the trouble." He gave the Cowboys a needed boost last year, but they don't need it now. Make the cut and get it over with.
There are, of course, two sides to every argument. Stay tuned as Michael Sisemore will give his reasons later why there is still a place for McClain in Dallas.