Mac Engel

Cowboys should cut their best defender, but can’t

Cowboys linebacker Rolando McClain is generally the most talented player on the field, but off the field problems have cost him a chance at a long-term contract.
Cowboys linebacker Rolando McClain is generally the most talented player on the field, but off the field problems have cost him a chance at a long-term contract. Star-Telegram

Linebacker Rolando McClain is a guy worth paying the price of admission to watch play football, yet he is not worth paying a lot to play football.

He is still the Cowboys’ most talented defensive player, and despite what he did last season no team offered him a big contract in the off-season. That allowed the Cowboys to re-sign him on what is essentially a rock-bottom, one-year deal.

Given his talent, ability and production, that contract is an unpleasant indictment of McClain’s reputation. This is what happens when you retire twice, fail three drug tests and project an aura of apathy toward practice.

That Jerry Jones convinced McClain to un-retire was this team’s biggest desperate gamble in 2014. That McClain was this team’s best defensive player and up to replacing Sean Lee was their greatest coup.

Despite the additions of Greg Hardy, Randy Gregory, Byron Jones and the return of Lee from a torn ACL, they need McClain, and he is the player they can trust the least.

There are those who would just like to cut him and turn it over to second-year player Anthony Hitchens, but enough people realize this defense needs him enough to just deal with it.

He is at the point in his career where he must decide if he cares enough to both look and act like he cares. If he wants the money, he has to “play ball” a little better, and not on the field.

He will spend the first four games of this season on the NFL’s suspended list for failing a drug test for the third time in his career. One more and he’s out of the league for at least one full season.

McClain repeatedly apologized and said it won’t happen again. What was he going to say — “Never know, I may fail another one tomorrow”?

The sports crime in this is that McClain is so smart with so much ability he should be a Pro Bowl selection with one of those five-year contracts that smother players in guaranteed cash.

Ro can be the best middle backer in football if he wants to.

Instead he remains good, and the marriage between the Cowboys and McClain is one of necessity rather than a deep desire. The Cowboys need McClain because he is just so good. McClain needs football, but it just doesn’t look like he cares about it outside of the games.

McClain entered last season having retired twice in his four-season career, but he did at least prove he cared enough to try to play a full season. McClain was second on the team in tackles, and was the most disruptive player among the front seven. He was visible at all times in 12 of the 13 games he played.

He is the combination of former Cowboys linebacker Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson and defensive end Charles Haley. Those two players were freakish athletes who knew how good they were. That can be nasty cocktail.

McClain is so good he doesn’t need to practice, and he knows it. Despite his raw language, this is a bright man. He can probably sleep through a film session with minimal consequence on the field. He is just one of those guys that can do things his teammates can’t.

He knows exactly how to express contrition, but his “sorrys” feel like they come from a Taylor Swift song — they’re just for show. He knows what to say, and how to say it.

In the NFL, these are called “con artists.” Assuming he means it, he can’t fail any more drug tests. Monday through Friday have to matter a little bit more.

Coaches rave about his instincts. Watch him enough, he is one of the those rare football animals who just gets it. He knows where the ball is going immediately.

Alabama coach Nick Saban said McClain had the best instincts of any player he’s ever coached. Cowboys coach Jason Garrett has done nothing but say similar things.

Outside of Dez Bryant, Ro McClain is the most entertaining player on this team to watch.

The concern is, despite his intelligence, he doesn’t care enough about preparation, which affects how well he plays on Sundays, and his ability to play all 16 games.

He did have knee surgery in May, and showed up to training camp overweight. Even though he is eligible to practice now, he’s out with a sore hamstring.

If it were anybody else, the Cowboys would have dumped him. Maybe if he had something else to do that paid six or seven figures, he would prefer to do that rather than play football. But they need each other.

Ro McClain is far from a coach killer, but he is maddening for a coach. He doesn’t mail it in, but there is more there for him if he just did it.

If he does it, he will be a guy worth paying the high price to both watch and play football.

Listen to Mac Engel every Tuesday and Thursday on Shan & RJ from 5:30-10 a.m. on 105.3 The Fan.

Mac Engel, 817-390-7697

Twitter: @macengelprof and The Big Mac Blog

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