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Randy Gregory felt like Mike Nolan didn’t give him a fair chance in 2020

The Cowboys edge rusher shed some light on things happening behind the scenes.

Dallas Cowboys v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Randy Gregory has certainly had an interesting career arc thus far, and in a way he’s still just getting started. He’ll turn 29 by the end of this season, but it will be just his fifth year playing for the team, and could potentially represent the first time Gregory has ever been active for a full season’s worth of games.

In recent months, Gregory has been very open about his struggles throughout his life, a clear sign of growth as the edge rusher has overcome an indefinite suspension from the NFL and seems to have his life back on track. Recently, Gregory was featured in a sprawling article from Dan Pompei of The Athletic that offers some incredible insight into his life before and during his Cowboys days, as well as how much he’s progressed to this point.

The piece gives access to the off-the-field aspects that fans haven’t been privy to until now, but in 2020 it was easy to see how good things were going on the field for Gregory. After sitting out the first six games of the season, Gregory appeared in his first NFL game in nearly two years and played in a whopping six defensive snaps. He saw his usage increase as the season went on and Gregory got back into playing shape, but he finished the season without a single start to his name, even after he tallied two sacks in a game against the Washington Football Team. In fact, Gregory only had two games all season in which he played on more than half of the team’s defensive snaps.

At the time, this prompted some consternation from the fan base, especially as Gregory started to consistently flash during games. Gregory’s return helped the Cowboys make the decision to trade away the vastly disappointing Everson Griffen, but Gregory struggled to get snaps behind Aldon Smith, whose hot start to the season (four sacks in the first three seasons) fizzled quickly. As it turns out, this was intentional by the coaching staff, or so Gregory feels. Buried in the piece from The Athletic was this nugget:

As much as the 2020 season could prove to have been a springboard, Gregory believes he was denied opportunities last year. He thought he had fulfilled the obligations from his indefinite 2019 suspension after a year away from the team, but the NFL saw it differently. His reinstatement was delayed because the NFL didn’t drug test during the pandemic, so Gregory did not have the opportunity to prove he was clean. The league allowed him to return to the facility at the start of the season but prevented him from playing the first six games, apparently to see if he could handle a deliberate reintroduction.

For the rest of the season, Gregory’s opportunities behind Aldon Smith were limited.

“I felt there was a little bit of favoritism going on … refusing to let me outshine their favorite,” he says. “They knew I could do it, so they did what they could to keep me at bay. I had my times when I was angry. I used to talk to Peter about it, and the best thing I could do was just go out there on the field with the plays they give me and make those plays worth it. I did that, but I truly felt I got robbed of a year last year.”

Gregory doesn’t outright say it, but it’s pretty obvious that he’s referring to Smith, who had a strong connection to defensive line coach Jim Tomsula. The connection between the two played a big part in the Cowboys signing Smith in the first place. In turn, Tomsula’s history with defensive coordinator Mike Nolan must have translated to Smith holding onto his role despite the coincidence of his declining play and Gregory’s ascending play.

As a matter of fact, Smith was seeing more snaps than even DeMarcus Lawrence, the Cowboys’ best pass rusher, towards the end of the year. And in the two games where Gregory recorded multiple sacks, he saw a drastic decline in snaps the following week; after his two sacks against Washington, Gregory’s snap count dropped from 29 to 13 the following week, and it went from 35 to 20 after his 1.5 sacks against the Bengals.

It wasn’t hard to connect the dots before and come to the conclusion that these personnel decisions weren’t strictly based on performance - and it can’t be a coincidence that Nolan and Tomsula were the only defensive coaches to get fired at season’s end - but Gregory’s comments more or less confirm what many already suspected.

The good news is that Dan Quinn has plans to feature Gregory much more in 2021, and it seems that Gregory’s feelings of being robbed this past season could add even more fuel to the fire of a talented player ready to finally explode onto the scene.

“I was surprised he didn’t play more,” Quinn says. “I brought it up to Mike. He was at the top of the list for me as far as defining a role. His playing time is going to increase, for sure. I think he’s going to really take off.”