In an alternate reality, Rolando McClain is the hero Dallas needs and deserves.
After presumably (hopefully) exhausting all other avenues to fill the gaping hole in the middle of the defense left in the wake of yet another Sean Lee injury, Jerry Jones and the Cowboys front office brought on McClain in a trade with the Baltimore Ravens, as explained by Ian Rapoport of NFL.com:
Before proceeding, let's take serious note of one thing: Ozzie Newsome, general manager of the Ravens, is a genius.
With that out of the way, let's get down to it.
Many were adamant that the Cowboys would address the linebacker position with Lee sidelined (and now officially on injured reserve) and the defense one year removed from ranking dead last in the NFL by allowing 415.3 yards per game and an average of 27 points on the nose.
But they surely didn't think that meant go out and grab a twice-retired, embattled linebacker who fell from the graces of being a top prospect because of off-field issues, which vary based on who is doing the storytelling.
This isn't a game of Madden—the human elements matter. McClain won't just be plugged in and let loose in the middle.
At 24 years old, McClain has retired twice in the last year and change. After being picked up by the Ravens on a one-year deal, the Alabama product called it quits. He was arrested for alleged disorderly conduct 10 days after signing on with the team.
Flash forward to this April, when McClain informed Newsome and Co. he was ready to come back to football. Rinse-repeat, he then retired again.
"I gotta follow my heart," McClain said in a text to Seth Wickersham of ESPN The Magazine. "It ain't football. If football made me complete I would play. But whenever I think of it my heart pulls me away from whatever reason...This means I'm done."
Wickersham also notes that McClain was late and failed a conditioning test with the Ravens before the announcement.
Now he's back for the third time.
"He sounds as excited about football as I've ever heard him,” said McClain's agent, Pat Dye, via ESPN's Todd Archer.
McClain should be excited, given the rarity of third chances, but this is the NFL, where all can be forgiven when elite talent is involved. Which is, by the way, why the Cowboys were willing to make the low-risk maneuver.
A Lambert Trophy winner at the collegiate level and the No. 8 overall pick in the 2010 draft, McClain was widely hailed as one of the surest things in the class (perhaps it's time we stop with such labels, especially for linebackers—Hi, Aaron Curry). Who could blame the Raiders? McClain then went on to fill the stat sheet over the course of his first three seasons as a pro:
He was even ranked as one of the top 25 inside linebackers each year over at Pro Football Focus (subscription required). As a rookie, he came in at No. 14, dipped as a sophomore to No. 23 and proceeded to have his best year yet in 2012, coming in at No. 11.
But then the downward spiral struck, and here we are.
He is undoubtedly talented, but so are those in competition for McClain's same spots. Of which there are a few, as ESPN's Calvin Watkins notes:
Im on vacation but Cowboys official told me Rolando McClain can play MLB or SLB.— Calvin Watkins (@calvinwatkins) July 1, 2014
The problem is, there are more reliable options at both spots. Kyle Wilber stole Justin Durant's starting gig last year on the strong side. Normally accustomed to having his hand in the dirt as a former defensive end, the Wake Forest product did well against the rush and provided one of his own in passing situations.
McClain's likeliest destination is on the inside, but he'll have to fight for a roster spot with the likes of Durant and Anthony Hitchens. Various experts see the former as the Day 1 starter in camp, even with his lack of experience on the inside.
It's Hitchens that makes McClain more than expendable. Hailing from Iowa, which used to be a sort of "Linebacker U" itself, he spent the past two years racking up 112 or more tackles in each season and wound up the No. 119 overall selection in the fourth round of the 2014 draft.
With Lee sidelined, it was Hitchens the staff chose over all other options, per Brandon George of The Dallas Morning News:
Dallas Cowboys rookie LB Anthony Hitchens said he took all of the first-team MLB reps in practice today at Valley Ranch in place of Sean Lee— Brandon George (@DMN_George) May 29, 2014
In fact, there were whispers that some may have viewed Hitchens as the solution to Lee's injury woes, anyway:
Don't forget that DeVonte Holloman made his case last year as a rookie, too, starting the last two games of the season in the middle with Lee sidelined.
Will McClain make the final roster in Dallas?
In other words, things are a bit more crowded in the Dallas linebacker corps than most realize at face value. The addition of McClain doesn't hurt and presents plenty of upside, but it has been more than a full year since we have seen what he is capable of on the field.
In fact, last we saw of McClain, he was failing to properly work out with another prestigious franchise, particularly known for having great linebackers. There is a lingering hope that McClain has finally seen the light and won't be a letdown, but until that happens, expectations have to remain on the shelf.
Pair McClain's history with the talent already in place, and it's simply hard to see him being one of the 53 men to walk out of the tunnel on opening day against San Francisco.