At this point, it’s seemingly inevitable that the Rolando McClain comeback story will result in him being named the Dallas Cowboys starting middle linebacker for the season opener.
McClain got work with the first team in practice Tuesday and will get reps with the starters in Saturday’s third preseason game against the Miami Dolphins. It was deserving after his huge game against the Baltimore Ravens on Saturday with a team-leading six tackles and a forced fumble.
McClain’s meteoric rise from being out of football last year to the starting lineup is likely coming at the expense of weakside linebacker Bruce Carter, once billed as a potential star who now is becoming a forgotten man.
When McClain took snaps with the starters in practice at middle linebacker, Justin Durant, who has been the starter there, moved over to replace Carter on the weak side.
Carter doesn’t see a demotion coming for him. He just believes the team is trying to find the right fits and upgrade depth.
“No, I don’t think so,” Carter said. “I just think we need depth. Especially Ro, he needs to get his reps at Mike. … So they’re just trying, I guess, to see what the rotations are going to be. I don’t know.”
The Cowboys are betting on McClain becoming the player that was picked eighth overall by the Oakland Raiders in 2010 and giving them a playmaking answer at a position that has been a question mark since Sean Lee suffered a season-ending knee injury in May.
It’s the reason the Cowboys traded for McClain, 25, in June and talked him out of retirement.
After tempering his excitement for much of training camp, while measuring McClain’s commitment and health, owner Jerry Jones sounded giddy about getting some playmaking magic from the former Alabama All-American.
“I do think that we’ve got a chance to pull one out of our hat with McClain,” Jones said on 105.3 The Fan on Tuesday. “Are we looking for it? Yes. Do we wonder about him? Yes. By the same token, an old adage in this league is when somebody has once been a blue player, a blue, not just Cowboys blue, but blue in general, then look for him to be a good player again. Doesn’t mean he’s going to be, but he can be. … I’m pretty pleased with his progress.
“The way Durant’s playing, the way [strongside linebacker Kyle] Wilber is playing — Wilber could be one of the more pleasant surprises because of the level he’s playing at — our linebackers have a chance to be better than we expect.”
It should be noted Carter’s name didn’t come up when Jones talked about the improvement at linebacker.
That spoke volumes considering that the team had such high hopes for Carter coming into the off-season. The Cowboys changed the defense for him. They simplified it so he could run to the ball and make plays like Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks during his heyday with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Now Carter is closer to being the next Wally Pipp than the next Brooks, thanks partly to the emergence of McClain.
Coach Jason Garrett said the team will play the best three linebackers and it remains a competition, but he doesn’t deny McClain’s potential.
“Just a very talented guy; he’s big, he’s fast, he’s strong, he’s physical, he’s instinctive, he’s a good tackler, knocks the ball out,” Garrett said. “[But] he hasn’t played football in a couple years. We’re balancing those things and trying to create an environment for him to somehow, someway be his best and show us what he can do. He’s done that over the last week or so and hopefully he can continue that trend.”
Durant’s best position is weakside linebacker. It’s where he has the most experience dating to his days in Jacksonville and Detroit. He was only moved to the middle because of Lee’s injury, and he said he will play wherever they tell him to.
Durant has no doubt the McClain train is coming.
“Yeah, I have been seeing it,” Durant said. “He is explosive. They can’t block him. He is definitely going to be good for us.”
McClain is trying his best to fly under the radar. His game against Baltimore was his first one since 2012.
“It felt weird but at the same time it felt good just to get back out there,” McClain said. “I knew I would be playing football again one day once I made the decision. I didn’t ever think it would be with the Cowboys.”
McClain knows his every move is being watched for his work ethic and desire as well as his play.
McClain, who retired twice last year after signing with the Ravens, believes he is making progress but puts little stock in the first-team reps or playmaking savior narrative.
“It’s no big deal right now,” McClain said. “I just have to practice and work and keep working.
“I think we got a lot guys who can make plays. I’m just trying to do my part.”