On Tuesday the inevitable happened. The Dallas Cowboys placed linebacker Sean Lee on the injured reserve list officially ending his season. Lee tore his left anterior cruciate ligament on opening day of organised team activities. Known by many fans as the ‘General’ Lee’s presence will be sorely missed. Lee has been plagued by injuries during his time in Dallas yet there’s still no obvious replacement for him on the roster. Justin Durant, DeVonte Holloman and rookie Anthony Hitchens have all taken snaps at middle linebacker throughout mini camp. And their battle looks set to continue deep into training camp. With Rolando McClain a twenty four year old former first round pick available, the Cowboys have surely landed an ideal replacement. But when you’ve got McClain on your books, things are never that straight forward.
McClain joins the Cowboys from the Baltimore Ravens in a low risk deal. Should he take part in fifty percent of the defensive snaps this year, the Cowboys will trade their sixth round pick in the 2015 draft for the Ravens seventh. McClain featured for Nick Saban’s Alabama side at college. Winning the SEC Championship in 2009, BCS National Championship in 2010 alongside numerous personal awards including the Lambert Award for best collegiate linebacker. For the Oakland Raiders McClain was a no brainer pick in the 2010 draft. Dan Kadar’s scouting report on McClain on SB Nation echoes that of many others.
"“McClain is perhaps the premier run-stopping linebacker in the draft…Possesses perfect size for the position…A picture-perfect tackler.McClain is the most sure-thing as a middle linebacker prospect in the draft since Patrick Willis. He’s a prototypical combination of size, athleticism and intelligence. If McClain somehow turns out to be a bust, it will be a shock.”"
The Raiders would have been confident they’d drafted a player with all the potential to become a Pro Bowler. Obviously that didn’t happen. Yet his statistics shouldn’t be scorned at. In 41 games for the Raiders he made 175 tackles and assisted 70 more. Not far behind Lee’s statistics of 193 tackles and 91 assists in 46 games. It’s worth noting how similar Lee’s and McClain’s numbers are considering McClain’s taken a year out from the game. Injuries have seen Lee appear in just five more games than the serial retirement guy.
A turbulent childhood meant McClain was sofa surfing from the age of 15. Like many angst ridden young men, football was an outlet. Despite making it through the college ranks into the NFL, he failed to get through three years in the NFL without serious off the field incidents. In 2011 he was arrested after being accused of firing a gun besides a man’s ear during an altercation. The charges were later dropped. In January 2013 he was arrested again, this time an issue with his tinted car windows. During this arrest, McClain gave police a false name. In three short years, his time as a Raider was over. It finished rather acrimoniously with an argument between himself and the coaching staff resulting in a suspension.
With McClain claiming he was “mentally done” with the Raiders his contract was mutually terminated. In April 2013, just a week after being cut by the Raiders he was offered a lifeline by the Ravens. With a contract laden with playing-time incentives, Baltimore (who were light on linebackers) could have been the ideal place for McClain to reignite his career. He lasted less that a fortnight before being arrested once again. It soon became apparent McClain wasn’t going to be playing football any time soon. In May 2013 he retired from the NFL. For the first time.
Despite a staggeringly awful performance, the Ravens put their full support behind the troubled young man. But once again, McClain couldn’t commit.
That’s right, McClain aged just 24 has already retired not once, but twice. He spent 2013 back at Alabama, studying but continued to work out under Nick Saban. In April of this year after convincing the Raven’s to give him another chance, McClain was put through their conditioning test. Despite a staggeringly awful performance, the Ravens put their full support behind the troubled young man. But once again, McClain couldn’t commit and chose to retire. Again. In a message to ESPN, McClain wrote:
"“If football made me complete I would play. But whenever I think of it my heart pulls me away from whatever reason.”"
So of course, in the crazy world of Jerry Jones it makes ideal sense to add McClain to the Cowboys Circus. This could look like a stroke of genius, or is it just going to look like another Jerry Jones calamitous decision? It was McClain whose hit caused tight end Jason Witten‘s spleen injury in 2012. So we know the guy can hit! And surely you’d rather have a guy like that on your team than against you.
It was McClain whose hit caused tight end Jason Witten’s spleen injury in 2012
In short, McClain is a gamble I’m willing to take. The trade of low cost draft picks is relatively insignificant. And it’s (for once) not a case of the Cowboys putting all their eggs into one basket. A run stuffer is precisely what the Cowboys lack. They allowed on average nearly 127 yards per game last year and McClain has the qualities to chip away at that number. A hardy linebacker who thrives on instincts. He’s an effective bull rusher whose sheer strength can penetrate experienced blockers. At Alabama he was a natural leader on the field commanding the best from his team mates. With his head in the right place, and focus entirely on football he could be more than just a short term replacement for Sean Lee.
The truth remains though that right now he is by no means a dead cert as a starter. He’ll be notably behind the rest of the team fitness wise, and with the wrong attitude he’d be unlikely to catch up let alone overtake them in the bid for a roster spot.
This isn’t a thirty plus year old coming out of retirement. This is a young man who will have a huge point to prove not just to the NFL world but more so himself. If he can manage to do that with a star on his helmet, fantastic. If he fails? No major loss to us. Let’s hope this time, McClain seizes his opportunity. Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.