Rolando McClain Suspension: Dallas Cowboys Saw It Coming


The NFL announced Thursday that Dallas Cowboys linebacker Rolando McClain will miss the first quarter of the 2015 season due to a drug suspension. In examining the terms of McClain’s one-year deal, it seems clear the team expected something like this to happen. While unfortunate, this incident serves to highlight some of the excellent work done by the Cowboys front office this offseason.

Dallas lost two starting linebackers – the versatile Justin Durant and freakishly athletic Bruce Carter – in the first two days of free agency. In the wake of those losses, re-signing McClain seemed more important than ever. Writers on this site lobbied hard for it here and here.

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But the Cowboys didn’t panic. They trusted returning linebackers Sean Lee, Anthony Hitchens, and Kyle Wilber. They used free agency to add depth with Jasper Brinkley, Andrew Gachkar, and Keith Rivers. They were prepared to move on from McClain even before they added two more linebackers in the draft – Damien Wilson and Mark Nzeocha. Though the New England Patriots flirted with McClain, and even had him for a visit, the Cowboys were still able to leverage a team-friendly deal.

McClain’s $3 million contract includes a $250,000 workout bonus, a $500,000 signing bonus, a $750,000 salary, and $1.5 million in roster bonuses – a portion of which he earns every week he’s on the active game day roster, according to Over The Cap.

The salary and roster bonus, which amount to $2.25 million of the $3 million contract, are paid as they are earned in 16 weekly installments during the season. By tying 75 percent of the contract’s value to week-by-week availability, it’s fair to assume the Cowboys expected McClain to miss some time when they signed him. As such, calls to release the bruising but volatile linebacker in the wake of this suspension seem a bit reactionary.

The team may have expected this suspension. In February, the NFL announced McClain would receive a four-game fine for failing his third drug test. The team knew when they signed him that McClain had already failed three drug tests, and failing a fourth would result in a four-game suspension.

Or perhaps the concerns were for injury. McClain missed three regular season games in 2014 due to injury and suffered concussions in each of Dallas’ playoff games – playing only 29 of a possible 142 postseason snaps on defense, according to Pro Football Focus.

In any case, McClain was not a priority when free agency began on March 10; he wasn’t actually signed until the first week of April. Though he had a nice season, making impactful plays for a resurgent Dallas defense and earning some votes for Comeback Player of the Year, rumor was the coaching staff didn’t love him. Local beat reporter Mike Fisher had this to say 10 days into free agency:

"“In addition to the usual contractual issues — money and years — this is about trust and reliability. Sources tell me the Cowboys staff felt hamstrung by McClain’s occasional availability, by having to wonder if his body and his psyche were always willing.”"

McClain was an exciting addition in 2014. He became the type of reclamation project that circa-2010 Jerry Jones would have fallen in love with and lavished riches upon. Even though that’s still the way Jones is largely viewed and the team is commonly covered, that’s no longer how the Cowboys do business.

Now if the team does have to move on from McClain, he’ll count only $500,000 against the 2015 cap. That means his dead money is not a consideration – the team can make a call based solely on the player, and whether or not he can make the team better.

Odds are, McClain still can. Just not for 16 games. But it appears the Cowboys never expected that anyway, so not much has changed.

Next: Three Unresolved Questions Facing The Dallas Cowboys