Sixteen months ago, Rolando McClain retired from the NFL. Six months ago McClain returned, bombed out in a workout with the Baltimore Ravens and retired again. Two months ago, the Dallas Cowboys traded a sixth-round pick to the Ravens for the rights to McClain. A month ago, McClain looked, at times, lost in a defensive scheme in which no one was sure he would be a good fit.
On Sunday against the Tennessee Titans, McClain looked like a player the Cowboys won’t be able to do without. Traded for out of desperation in the wake of the season-ending injury to Sean Lee, McClain is emerging as this year’s George Selvie. Or the player the Cowboys extract from the NFL scrap heap who turns out to be worth far more than anyone imagined.
McClain had seven tackles, a sack and a game-turning interception that is going to run on an endless loop on SportsCenter for a while.
After leading the Cowboys in tackles in the season-opening loss to San Francisco, McClain had seven tackles, a sack and a game-turning interception that is going to run on an endless loop on SportsCenter for a while. In case you missed it, McClain managed to gather the ball against his forearm while landing on the turf on his back. That description really doesn’t do it justice, either.
At issue when the Cowboys traded for McClain was whether he even wanted to play football. When he retired, it seemed absurd that a former first-round pick would leave at the height of his physical skills. But in an interview with ESPN.com last year, McClain bared his soul.
He told Seth Wickersham that he felt he needed to step away from the game or risk seeing his life spin further out of control. McClain had been arrested three times in a three-year span and saw his desire to play the game wane under the constant scrutiny of the media, coaches and the hangers-on from his hometown of Decatur, Alabama, many of who wanted McClain to use his $40 million NFL salary to support them.
McClain’s decision was bold. He went back to Tuscaloosa and reenrolled in college. It was a grand reset for McClain, and it seems to have worked. He felt comfortable enough to try and come back this spring, working out with the Ravens. But it went horribly. McClain couldn’t pass the conditioning test or complete the drills. He went back home to Alabama figuring that he wouldn’t play again.
But then the Cowboys called. It was Jerry Jones, the Cowboys’ owner and general manager, who got McClain thinking about giving the NFL another shot.
“I’m thrilled he [Jerry Jones] did give me a call,” McClain told reporters after Sunday’s win over Tennessee. “There weren’t many teams that I would have left the couch for, and this is one of them, and I’m glad that he did.”
Last year when the Cowboys were desperate for defensive line help, they plucked George Selvie off waivers. At the time, Selvie was two months removed from being released by Tampa Bay. All Selvie did last year was work his way into the starting rotation and make a sizeable impact on the defense, finishing the season with a career-best seven sacks, second-best on the team in 2013.
McClain appears poised to travel a similar path, and his progress is of the utmost importance for this Cowboys defense. McClain is filling the spot of the team’s top defensive player, Lee, and even if McClain can only fill one of Lee’s shoes this season that would represent a step up from what the Cowboys expected at the start of the season which, frankly, couldn’t have been that much.