This time next season, I hope to be sitting here spouting off just how excited I am about the Cowboys linebacker situation. With Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith slated to be chasing down ball carriers for years to come, who wouldn't be thrilled about that? The answer is no one, because that is a grand scenario that should have all fans delighted.
But that is then. What about now?
Well, the Cowboys still sit in pretty good shape as they will have the dynamic duo of Lee and Rolando McClain manning the middle of the field. Don’t act so disappointed. It wasn’t too long ago that we were all super-eager to see these two on the field together. And now that we’ve seen it, some of the romance seems to have fizzled. Fans aren’t anticipating this tandem like they were last year. Why is that? They were actually pretty good together last year. Sean Lee was outstanding and whether it jumped out at you or not, Rolando McClain was doing Rolando McClain things.
But the fire isn’t going out because fans don’t see these guys as a talented group, but rather we have some trust issues when it comes to good ol’ double-nickel, Rolando McClain. Why can’t he be trusted?
There are two things going on here. First off, his commitment to the team leaves something to be questioned. There is always something going on to where he’s unable to be on the field practicing. McClain is was not at OTA’s last week for what Jason Garrett identified as personal family issues. I’m not suggesting his reasons aren’t valid, but it seems like he’s always missing from the practice field for one reason or another. McClain needs to put the work in, get through the conditioning, and make sure he’s in good shape when it comes time to be making football plays. And that is something that could be a problem as it was reported in April that he put on a little weight during the offseason.
And being in shape isn’t a new thing for Rolando. 247 Sports had this to say…
In 2014, McClain struggled with the Ravens workout program failing his first conditioning test of that offseason. McClain was coming off his brief retirement from football at the time.
McClain entered last season a little heavier than his listed 255-pound playing weight. The linebacker was exhausted when he first took to the practice field before his first game of 2015 season after serving a four-game suspension.
Needless to say, McClain has had some issues with conditioning in the past and obviously the concern is real over McClain's current status.
During the last couple seasons, he is frequently missing from the practice field while he is nursing his Rolodex of injuries. So the last thing you want for a player like McClain is for him to start doing football things without being in good shape. That’s a sure fire way to end up in the ice tub.
McClain needs to be on the football field. Which brings me to another problem – substance abuse. Last year, he missed the first four games of the season as he served a suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. If he slips up again, it’s going to be a lot longer than four games. You never know if McClain will have a problem and in the blink of an eye – be unavailable to the Cowboys.
I’ve conditioned myself to look at McClain as just a bonus. He’s not someone you want to hold your breath on because of his availability risk. The Cowboys know this and that is why they keep offering him one-year deals. If you’re keeping track, he’s now gotten three of them. The team has no desire to make a long-term investment in him so they resort to renting out his services. And while it’s safe to put him out-of-sight, out-of-mind, it’s hard to not relish in the satisfaction he brings when he’s on the field. Let’s be real about this – McClain plays well.
Statistically speaking, he gets the job done. Despite missing four games last year, he still finished with 97 tackles (11 of them for a loss), two sacks, 10 pressures, and this beautiful pick six against Miami.
McClain also brings about some malice to the defense. If you’re holding the ball, he wants to punish you. He’s not a dirty player, although Danny Amendola may beg to differ, but he plays with animosity towards his opponents that you want to see in your middle linebacker. And that’s another thing – he plays middle linebacker. That affords the Cowboys to move their LB ace, Sean Lee, to the weak side, preserving him. And it worked. Lee played in 14 games last year, whereas the previous three seasons he played in a total of 17 games. He was finally healthy enough to showcase his Pro Bowl-worthy talent.
While some may criticize McClain’s consistency, there isn’t much doubt about what he brings to the team on Sundays. If you go down the list of the Cowboys strong defensive players, it doesn’t take you very long to get to McClain. The front office invested a premium draft pick to acquire Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith. The team’s young prospect is very much the opposite of McClain when it comes to his approach. He’s got gold-star character and has a commitment to his conditioning that is like no other. The Cowboys got a great player in Smith if…that nerve in his knee fires. It will be a waiting game for the Cowboys when it comes to Smith. If things work out with his knee, the team will be stacked at linebacker and McClain will truly become a bonus. The days of worrying about another drug mishap would be over. If his heart’s not in it or he can’t find himself on the practice field – it would be a "him" problem and not have very much effect on the team.
But that’s 2017. For now, the team needs him. The team will need about 800 snaps from him next season. If for some reason, he’s not available, the Cowboys will have to look to others to help out. Anthony Hitchens is a solid player, but he’s already penciled in for 500 snaps at the SAM position. The team would need to get help from players like Andrew Gachkar, Kyle Wilber, Damien Wilson, Keith Smith, or possibly Mark Nzeocha. While that seems like a healthy list to choose from, these players are a big drop off from McClain. Players like Gachkar and Wilson can play respectable against the run, however they both are huge liabilities in coverage. And that is a trait that highlights McClain’s value to the team.
McClain is a good football player. Jason Garrett will tell you exactly that, but that’s because he says that about a lot of players. If the Cowboys can harness the good in him it's going to be good news for the defense. And if something happens where all of a sudden he's not available to the team, the impact will be felt. Let's just hope he's got one more year left in him because when Jaylon finally get's on the field, that changes everything.