Mac Engel

Give Cowboys LB Rolando McClain one season to beat his reputation

The following analogy was offered to me by a veteran Cowboys employee: The Cowboys, stuck at closing time in the bar, needed someone to go home with — knowing full well, when dawn broke, they would deny ever knowing this person.

Then, their ugly duckling turned into the second coming of Lee Roy Jordan, or Sean Lee, and now they are just dying to brag to everybody they were the one to ask Rolando McClain “for a date.”

The problem for the Cowboys is they must refrain from bragging too hard after their desperate invitation because no one is sure if they can trust this wildly talented but still unpredictable player.

In an ideal world, McClain is an unexpected gift, but there is nothing ideal about this defense.

McClain has already missed one of the first three games this season — he was out Sunday with a groin injury — and it is apparent the player the Cowboys can trust the least is the one they need the most. The defense is better when he is on the field.

His mere presence is a platform for a bigger discussion about guys with baggage. How long does Rolando McClain have before he is no longer that guy?

Players and people acquire baggage that shapes our opinions and perceptions.

To many, Michael Vick will always be a dog killer. Ray Rice will always be a wife beater. Adrian Peterson will be that child abuser.

On a lesser scale, McClain is that guy who doesn’t care. He is the eighth pick in the 2010 NFL Draft who is going to blow it.

How long do we pile on a guy before we accept that the behavior is an aberration and that he gets it?

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Watching McClain play against the 49ers and Titans in Week 1 and Week 2, the man cares about making plays. He was visible near the line of scrimmage, making plays on the ball and doing many of the things that Sean Lee did when he was healthy.

It’s one thing to make a tackle, and it’s another to make the type of tackle that prevents the other team from doing things. McClain can do that.

In two games, he has 15 tackles, one sack and one interception.

Watching the Rams and some guy named Austin Davis throw it and run it all over the place Sunday against the Cowboys offered the type of empirical evidence this team did not want. The Cowboys need Rolando McClain almost as much as Rolando McClain needs or wants the money.

These are the guys who get coaches fired, and you can bet a lot of your own hard-earned money that Jason Garrett has sweated managing this man more than any other player, including Dez Bryant, who is now a model citizen.

These are also the guys who can get coaches contract extensions, earn Pro Bowl invitations and get multiyear deals.

Because sports careers are typically short, McClain needs one season to demonstrate he is not the guy who quit multiple times and gets hurt all the time. He needs to show for one season he cares about his job.

If he suffers an injury, that is a different bag of perceptions. Ask Sean Lee, who justifiably carries the “Injury Prone” patch on his jersey.

The difference is, when Lee suffered an injury, no one would dare have asked if he cared or was dogging it.

Players have varying degrees of pain tolerance, and those concerns are better left to the players, trainers, coaches and medical professionals rather than me or you.

When you are Rolando McClain, such questions are going to be asked because past behavior warrants skepticism.

Is he hurt or is he using any reason to get out of the lineup?

Baseball players in a slump are renowned for using a hangnail to get on the disabled list. Football players in blowouts, especially in the cold, are known to play up an injury to wiggle out of the game.

For now, McClain has earned earned that type of doubt.

He will likely play Sunday night against the Saints, where broadcasters Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth undoubtedly will mention his reputation.

If McClain keeps making plays, there will not be any need to talk about that other stuff too much.

If that has happened then, the Cowboys can brag about their “first date” with Rolando McClain.

Follow Mac Engel on The Big Mac Blog at star-telegram.com/sports/.

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