Jason Hatcher wants one thing clear.
There is no way he would have asked for a trade if defensive tackle Jay Ratliff was still with the Dallas Cowboys and he would have been forced to line up at nose tackle in the 4-3 defense.
No matter what he was quoted as saying: “Horrible. Horrible. Horrible. I’m not a nose tackle. I probably would’ve been asking to be traded or something because I don’t like to play the nose.”
Hatcher contends now he was kidding and the comments were made partly tongue in cheek.
Considering his team-first attitude and the fact that he never asked for a trade or complained about his role throughout the off-season or the early part of training camp when the Cowboys put the original plan in place, Hatcher should be given the benefit of the doubt.
Ratliff’s controversial departure has paved the way for what has been a career-best season for the eight-year veteran Hatcher.
“I’m not going to say I’m glad Rat is gone because I wish we had him because he’s a helluva football player, but God works in mysterious ways and I’m at the position,” Hatcher said. “I’m making plays and having a helluva year, so I’ve got to keep it up.”
With a career-high and team-leading nine sacks in 11 games, as well as a career-high tying five tackles for loss (tied for first on the team), Hatcher has been one of the Cowboys’ best defenders while emerging as an unchallenged team leader.
There is no way this would have occurred if Ratliff wouldn’t have forced his way off the team. Hatcher would have been forced to play the nose tackle position and do the grunt work while Ratliff would have played the more glamorous 3-technique position in defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin’s scheme.
Kiffin acknowledges the Cowboys initially thought the 6-foot-6 Hatcher was too tall to play the 3-technique position but were forced to try him there because of the uncertainty with Ratliff.
“I don’t know if I knew that for sure,” said Kiffin, when asked if he thought Hatcher would flourish at the 3-technique. “If you’re too tall, you don’t fit as a 3-technique. You’re more of a defensive end-type of player. They’re special guys who can do that. He’s one of those guys — and we talked about it. When he first got here, I said, ‘You might want to take a look at him depending upon Ratliff and this and that.’ And it worked out.”
Ratliff never got on the field. He was placed on the physically unable to perform list before the season and then was cut on Oct. 16 because the Cowboys thought he would not play at all this season.
That Ratliff eventually signed with the Chicago Bears and will line up against the Cowboys still chafes owner Jerry Jones.
“It’s just it would be very frustrating to see him get in there and play when most thought that he couldn’t play when he left us, as far as he was concerned and his approach to what he was going to be doing this year,” Jones said. “And so with all of that in mind, I look at that and I have always thought a lot of him as a pro football player, and with the shape that we’re in on our defensive front, as far as I’m concerned, he needs to be over here helping the Dallas Cowboys.”
The other side of that coin would be to consider what type of shape the Cowboys’ defensive line would be in if Hatcher didn’t emerge as a great player this season.
How good has Hatcher been?
Consider that Hatcher’s nine sacks are not only a career high for him and the most in the league among interior linemen, but they are also more than Ratliff had in any season as a four-time Pro Bowler. Ratliff’s career high was 7.5 in 2008 and that was five years ago. He had only two sacks in 2011 and none since.
Defensive end DeMarcus Ware, who is in danger of having Hatcher end his eight-year streak as the team leader in sacks, said the former third-round pick from Grambling has simply made the most of his increased opportunities.
“I know the way Hatcher has played in the past, he has never had that many opportunities to get out there and make plays,” Ware said. “But now he’s out there 24-7. He’s out there playing really well. And he’s sort of defining himself and becoming a great player.”
Hatcher is set to be a restricted free agent at the end of the season and is in line for a big payday.
Vice president Stephen Jones and Jerry Jones have acknowledged that Hatcher, 32, has outperformed the three-year, $6 million deal he signed in 2011.
And while they want to keep him, they are admittedly challenged by salary cap issues.
Hatcher’s first choice is to remain in Dallas, but he plans to maximize his value in free agency.
“Oh, I’m going to test the market,” Hatcher said. “You guys just leave me alone about my contract. I’m not trying to think about that.
“I’ve got four games to play, to be the best 3-technique in the league, help my team go to the playoffs. That’s my approach.”