Through no fault of his own, Michael Sam—as the NFL's first openly gay player—is a media lightning rod. Most general managers don't want that type of attention, which might explain why it's taken several days for anybody to express interest in Sam after the St. Louis Rams cut him loose on Saturday.
Unfortunately, it appears Sam was lumped in with players who are avoided for being too flashy (Terrell Owens, for example) or posing too much of a risk from a behavior standpoint (such as Dez Bryant). That's why it makes perfect sense for Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones to be the first man to give Sam a chance post-Rams.
Jones loves lightning rods. He craves attention. So it should surprise nobody that after a routine physical on Wednesday, Sam is officially joining the Cowboys' practice squad, per DallasCowboys.com's Rowan Kavner.
“We felt like it was a good move for our football team right now,” said Dallas head coach Jason Garrett, per Kavner. “I don’t like to talk about who’s on our board and who’s off our board, but obviously he was a very good player in college. His track record speaks for itself.”
ESPN Dallas' Jean-Jacques Taylor explained why Sam and the Cowboys were a perfect fit:
While other teams might've been reluctant to sign Sam because they feared his presence would be a distraction that's a non-factor in Dallas where Jerry Jones believes the more mini-cams the better.
These players are used to having a locker room full of media every day during the season. Five, 10 or 20 more isn't going to be a big deal.
Remember, Jerry Jones is a marketing genius who believes every word written or spoken about the Cowboys, positively or negatively, is good for business.
Jones wears two very important hats at Valley Ranch. He's the owner and the general manager, which is very problematic at times. One role requires him to sell this team to potential customers and clients, while the other requires him to make the best football decisions, and those two job descriptions often contradict each other.
In this case, though, the Cowboys have a win-win. In this case, they've made the right decision when it comes to both marketing and football. Sam has a serious shot at becoming a jersey-sale champion off the field and a valuable presence on it.
Only a few months ago, the 'Boys passed on Sam with three seventh-round picks, due at least in part to the fact he was—and largely still is—viewed as a "tweener" (too small to be a full-time 4-3 end and too slow to be a full-time outside linebacker).
"It’s obvious that guy can be an outside linebacker and can go inside and put his hand down again," Jones said after the draft, per ESPN Dallas' Calvin Watkins. "But he was that tweener, and we felt like we had gone up and drafted—and paid a high price to go up and draft—DeMarcus Lawrence because we felt like he was the closest thing to having a better chance of putting his hand down at that time."
But so much has changed since then, both for the Cowboys and Sam.
Dallas is trying to replace both defensive end DeMarcus Ware and defensive tackle Jason Hatcher, who had exactly 50 percent of the team's 34 sacks last season. Lawrence was supposed to help with that in a major way, but he's now out at least half the season with a foot injury.
Defensive end Anthony Spencer remains out as he attempts to come back from microfracture surgery, defensive tackle Henry Melton missed most of training camp and the preseason with a groin injury and defensive end George Selvie—the only player on the current roster who had more than two sacks last season—has been hampered by a shoulder injury.
Beggars can't be choosers. So yeah, Sam is a tweener who can't be relied upon to put his hand in the dirt on all three downs, but he's proven time and again that—despite shabby measurables—he can quite simply get after the quarterback. And it would simply be irresponsible of the Cowboys to reject that.
Check out this explosiveness on a run stuff against the New Orleans Saints:
Less than a year after being named SEC Defensive Player of the Year for an 11.5-sack senior season at Missouri, Sam was one of only nine players to put together three or more sacks during the 2014 NFL preseason. He added five more pressures in addition to that, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), giving him eight in total on only 71 pass-rushing snaps. He also had 11 tackles while missing zero, per PFF.
|Players with 3+ sacks and 10+ tackles, 2014 preseason|
The fit is just too perfect. Sam can be an ideal situational pass-rusher within a depleted 4-3 unit that is coached by defensive line magician Rod Marinelli, who last year made the journeyman Selvie look like Jim Jeffcoat.
The man knows how to get the most out of his tackles and ends, regardless of their flaws, so expect Marinelli to do exactly that with Sam in clear passing situations, working him in frequently opposite Selvie and either alongside or in place of Kyle Wilber.
Of course, first he'll have to make that move from the practice squad to the 53-man roster and earn a spot on the 46-man game-day roster. That won't be easy, but considering the rate at which Cowboys front-seven defenders land in the medical room, there's a decent chance we'll be seeing Sam on Sundays sooner rather than later or never.
Sam should wind up being active for the majority of the 2014 campaign. One year after giving up the third-highest yardage total in NFL history, the Cowboys defense can't get much worse. So they truly have nothing to lose and everything to gain here.
With Sam confronting the opposite problem—and likely inspired to succeed as a result—expect this move to pay off for everyone involved.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFC East for Bleacher Report since 2012.
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