The past few months couldn’t have been easy on native Texan—and freshly-signed Dallas Cowboy practice squad member—Michael Sam. The first openly gay football player to enter the NFL draft went from being the SEC Defensive Player of the Year when he was in the closet to having his talent dismissed and his orientation declared a “circus,” ultimately leading to a draft-day slide that finally saw him taken late in the 7th round by the St. Louis Rams.
The Rams were never a good fit for Sam, a defensive end who joined the team with perhaps the NFL’s deepest roster on the defensive line. Sam soon found himself in a battle for the one available roster spot for a late-round or undrafted rookie on the line with Ethan Westbrooks, a former West Texas A&M standout who signed with the Rams as an undrafted free agent—and Westbrooks, a revelation of a player, won the job after putting up the strongest preseason of any defensive end in the NFL, according to the stats-masters at ProFootballFocus.
Sam was cut by the Rams due to roster limitations and found himself out of work for several days, which was strange considering his own stats. Westbrooks may have had an all-time great preseason for an undrafted rookie defensive lineman, but Sam’s wasn’t far off: He notched three sacks during the preseason and demonstrated strong instincts throughout. To put that in perspective, ESPN’s Adam Schefter tweeted that only twelve players had two and a half or more sacks during the preseason; ten of them were on 53 man rosters, one of them was on a practice squad, and Michael Sam sat on the street for five days hoping for a job.
The deeper one dove into the numbers, the easier it was to tell that whatever was keeping Sam from having the opportunity to play, it wasn’t his performance. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s Jeff Schultz noted that there were only six players who had even two sacks during the preseason who couldn’t find work, and five of them were long-time veterans whose skillset and ceiling were well-established through many years of play—while Sam was the sort of potential-flashing rookie that teams tend to clamor for under every other circumstance.
Still, the circumstance that makes Sam a unique player—the fact that he, unlike every other gay player who’s been in the NFL, is out to the world—was a significant one. Columnists like CBS Sports’ Pete Prisco did veritable backflips to demonstrate that Sam’s unemployment had to do with the fact that he secretly stank as a player, despite the measureable performance:
Sam, who was a facing long odds as a seventh-round pick, was credited with two sacks against the Browns in Week Three, but the second one wasn’t his to be given. He did nothing on that play, and fell on the pile to get the sack. On the first one, he did beat Browns tackle Martin Wallace, who is an undrafted free agent who actually made the Browns’ 53-man roster.
On that sack, Sam looked like an NFL pass rusher, which is why I think he needs more seasoning. There is flash there, but that’s against backup linemen. I don’t think he’s explosive enough to win against good ones, although he did beat Packers tackle Derek Sherrod — a first-rounder in 2011 — for a sack, but Sherrod has been plagued by injuries in his time with Green Bay.
This was the kind of reasoning that Sam faced during his time looking for a job: He had three sacks, but one didn’t count because all he did was hustle his way into the backfield so that he was in the position to take advantage of the situation; one of them didn’t count because it came against a guy who had been undrafted by the Browns, but actually did make the team (a tall order for any undrafted rookie); and one of them didn’t count because it came against a former first-round draft pick who has dealt with injuries in his career. Just like that, Sam went, in the eyes of a senior columnist at one of the league’s television partners, from having three preseason sacks to having none at all. And who wants a defensive end who can’t get the quarterback*?
Well, Jerry Jones, enlightened 21st century man of integrity, a guy who opted to believe his own lyin’ eyes over the analysis of someone like Prisco, who knew that Sam’s sacks didn’t really count for reasons that had nothing to do with his sexual orientation.
In a lot of ways, Jones and the Cowboys are a perfect fit for Sam. The kid is a native Texan, which means that having a star on his helmet as he wears #46 on the Cowboys practice squad is probably a bit of a thrill for him; the attention that could be attracted because of his orientation, which got similied-away by front-office men who discussed the issue with Sports Illustrated‘s Peter King as “the circus,” is probably a-okay with Jones, who likes circuses; and—most importantly—he enters an ideal football situation.
That the Cowboys defensive line stinks isn’t a revelation—it may well be the worst in the NFL, and among the worst in team history, at least on paper. Longtime star Demarcus Ware was released in the offseason, and second-round rookie DeMarcus Lawrence, who was drafted to replace him both in name and, one hopes, ability, suffered a preseason injury that’ll have him sidelined for a minimum of eight weeks. That leaves the ‘Boys with a total of four active defensive ends on their roster, with undistinguished journeymen George Selvie and Jeremy Mincey headlining the bunch. That means that, even for a player who will merely be practicing with the team, there’s an opportunity to turn heads quickly, and potentially earn a spot on the roster.
Just as important is the fact that Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli is widely regarded as the best defensive line coach in the league. (In his last job, with the Chicago Bears, he oversaw a complete transformation of the team’s line from a middling unit to one of the league’s most feared.) If Sam—like most first-year players—really does require the “seasoning” that Prisco claims he saw on tape, he’ll be in an outstanding position to receive it.
In other words, Michael Sam is on the team with the biggest need at his position in the NFL, with a coach who’s well-respected throughout the league as the man who can bring the most out of players. St. Louis was always a long shot for Sam simply because of the team’s depth at the position, and the fact that he found himself in a competition with a fellow rookie who outshined literally every other player at the position in the entire league was another example of why it just wasn’t an ideal fit. But in Dallas?
In Dallas, Michael Sam has every opportunity to succeed. A team that’s starved for pass-rushers, with a coach who knows how to develop them, and which is equipped to deal with whatever bullshit “distractions” come up (please, ESPN, no more reports on showering habits, cool?) is the exact sort of environment that he should be in. If Sam succeeds now, it’s because he can play ball.
(AP Photo/Aaron M. Sprecher)