The NFL announced the suspension of Cowboys linebacker Rolando McClain for violating the league's substance abuse policy. Given this is the former 2010 first-round pick's second violation, the NFL upped the punishment to 10 games suspended without pay.
According to our man inside Valley Ranch, Fish, the club knew about McClain's impending suspension as far back as two weeks ago.
This revelation gives a little more context to what head coach Jason Garrett said during mini-camp when he reassured the media that he had discussions without the mercurial defensive playmaker throughout the off-season, an off-season which saw McClain miss all of the team's voluntary OTAs as he spent time with his family in Alabama. During mandatory mini-camp McClain did not participate in team portions of drills, instead working off to the side with the rehabbing (Orlando Scandrick, Gavin Escobar) and the protesting (Ron Leary).
McClain will be eligible to play starting with the Thanksgiving Day classic against Washington. In the meantime, the man who racked up 50 tackles, two sacks, and an interception returned for a touchdown in 2015 will still be allowed to practice with the club during training camp and play in the Cowboys' full complement of pre-season games.
Shouts of "cut him" and "we should have drafted Myles Jack" are already buzzing around social media like flies around a cow's butt. Dallas made their decision on Jack with the selection of Notre Dame's Jaylon Smith. Where fans are focused on the context of one year for bragging rights against their annoying, Cowboys-hating coworkers or relatives, the front office is focused on the context of a decade. With Dr. Dan Cooper having performed the knee surgery on Smith, the club feels they have the inside track on knowing Smith will return to full form. Sure, it may not be this year, despite what Jerry Jones says or Ed Werder re-re-re-reports for the benefit of low-information fans. But the club is confident the linebacking corps of the future will be Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith, and your choice between Damien Wilson, Mark Nzeocha, and Anthony Hitchens.
Where does that leave the Cowboys with McClain in 2016? The club must evaluate what message they are sending with the McClain suspension. With second-year defensive end Randy Gregory and third-year defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence already suspended for the first four games of this season for identical violations, letting McClain takes reps from the aforementioned Wilson, Nzeocha, and Hitchens in training camp and pre-season games not only stops their progress, but a return to starting middle linebacker for Thanksgiving Day and a playoff chase implies there are no consequences. If you can play football, you don't need to worry about being the best version of yourself.
And if McClain's 10-game suspension wasn't enough, the league also upheld Lawrence's four-game suspension. According to Fish, the Cowboys were hoping the league would be more lenient in their punitive measures against the former Boise State Bronco seeing as how he endured back surgery in January, indicating the "substance abuse" was more medical than recreational.
The upheld suspension plays out exactly as COO Stephen Jones said two weeks ago at the groundbreaking of the new Baylor Scott & White Sports Therapy and Research Center at The Star in Frisco.
"[The NFL] just kind of tells you when they tell you," Jones said. "We obviously are aware of it. I mean they've given us a warning because we know he's up for suspension but how that comes out on appeal and all that, just obviously we're assuming -- You have to plan for the worst and if it's better than that great."
Well, the worst has happened: the Cowboys will be without their presumed starting defensive ends for the first four games, which feature home-stands against the Giants and the Bears and forays into Washington and San Francisco. Yet Dallas has been preparing for the worst in looking at new ways to generate a pass rush with versatile talent. Reports throughout OTAs and mini-camp were that the coaching staff has plans to kick out three-technique tackle Tyrone Crawford out to end and rush the passer from the perimeter. Dallas has options in defensive lineman Ryan Russell and David Irving, two second-year guys that also bring versatility to a defensive line narrowed down by suspensions.
In our visit with Cedric Thornton at his annual free football camp in his hometown of Star City, Arkansas, the new free agent from Philadelphia stated the defensive line group is working on forming that same cohesion and fraternity the offensive line has so famously developed with the arrival of center Travis Frederick and right guard Zack Martin in consecutive drafts.
Said Thornton: "We hang with each other off the field and just the D-line group. great correlation. We try to find out each others' weaknesses off the field and strengths and weaknesses off the field and on the field. We try to get a good correlation going on. We know it's going to take a group effort. Four equals one is our saying in the room."
In football math, 22 also equals one. Back in 2014 when the Cowboys won the division with a 12-4 record, the club had an imposing offense captained by a healthy Tony Romo for 15 games and an indefatigable run game with DeMarco Murray. No one could have predicted the defense would have forced 31 turnovers, the second-most in the league, with Lee out with a torn ACL, Orlando Scandrick suspended for four games, DeMarcus Ware in Denver, and Jason Hatcher in Washington. Yet the Cowboys offense controlled the clock, mounted the point margin, and leveled the playing field for the otherwise talentless defense.
As the anticipated talent for 2016 serves their time for their crimes, the Cowboys offense must again tap into that secret sauce from two years ago to help cover for an otherwise porous defense. Fourth overall pick Ezekiel Elliott could be the missing ingredient to replicating that success.