The Dallas Cowboys have signed defensive end Michael Sam to the team’s 10-man practice squad four days after he was released by the St. Louis Rams, re-opening the door for Sam to possibly become the first openly gay player to appear in a regular season NFL game this season.
NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport reported Tuesday that the Cowboys were exploring the idea of signing Sam to the practice squad, and that they later planned to bring him to Dallas Wednesday for a physical. NFL.com reported Wednesday that the team had made space on its practice squad for the defensive end who became the first openly gay player ever selected in the NFL Draft in May.
Initially, it might be easy to think that Cowboys of all teams are a surprising destination for the guy seeking to become the NFL’s first openly gay player, given the perceptions of Texas’ political and cultural persuasions and the facade of hyper-masculinity that surrounds a franchise that specifically markets its cheerleaders as fervently as the Cowboys do. But in reality, Dallas might be the perfect place for Sam to get another chance to fulfill his dreams of making an NFL roster.
In Dallas, Sam is walking into a situation that is almost the exact opposite the one he faced in St. Louis from a personnel perspective. The Rams boasted the league’s top pass rushing defensive line during the 2013 season (according to Football Outsiders), returned the key members of that unit, and further bolstered it during the draft. Sam turned in an impressive preseason, logging three sacks and 11 tackles, but it was always going to be tough for him to make that roster, much less break into the rotation at defensive end.
The Cowboys, by contrast, featured one of the league’s worst defensive lines a year ago. They lost defensive linemen DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher in free agency during the offseason. Defensive tackle DeMarcus Lawrence, who the team took in the second round of May’s draft, suffered an injury in the preseason that landed him on injured reserve. Top returning pass rusher George Selvie is still dealing with a shoulder injury of his own. Instead of having loads of depth and talent, the Cowboys are searching for both. As a member of the practice squad, Sam won’t be eligible to appear in games unless the Cowboys move him to the active roster, but given Dallas’ issues, he at least has a chance to make that happen over the next few weeks (another team could also sign him off the practice squad).
Another reason Dallas is a positive place for Sam: as Grantland’s Bill Barnwell noted Tuesday, the team’s defensive coaches — co-ordinator Rod Marinelli and assistant co-ordinator Monte Kiffin — are highly regarded around the league.
According to Rapoport’s report, the Cowboys spent Tuesday gauging potential player reactions to a Sam signing, so the fact that they elected to open a practice squad spot after doing so would also seem to suggest that players are willing to welcome Sam in the locker room, much as the Rams’ leaders had throughout the preseason.
Head coach Jason Garrett, meanwhile, swatted away the idea that Sam might be a distraction to his team during a Wednesday press conference. That shouldn’t be surprising either. Rams head coach Jeff Fisher reiterated over the weekend that Sam hadn’t been a distraction, and perhaps no team has more experience dealing with contrived “distractions” than Dallas. From Jimmy Johnson to Barry Switzer, from Michael Irvin to Terrell Owens, from Tony Romo’s girlfriends to Tony Romo’s vacation habits — and everything involving Jones — this is an organization that has spent at least the last 20 years dealing with huge personalities and some sort of overblown media issue. Compared to the endless stream of Cowboys “controversies,” Michael Sam is nothing.
This could be a good signing for the Cowboys too. Dallas didn’t rate him highly before the draft, according to different pre-draft reports, but after his stellar preseason, this will give the Cowboys an up-close opportunity to see if he can help address their needs at a relatively low price: practice squad players make a minimum of $6,300 a week, well below the minimum salary for rookies on the active roster. Given the Cowboys’ unique financial arrangement with the league — they opted out of the NFL’s merchandise revenue sharing consortium — they could reap big benefits from replica jersey sales too. Sam, after all, was sixth among all NFL players in jerseys sold after the Rams drafted him (that benefit likely won’t come unless Sam makes the active roster, though: Dallas assigned him No. 46, which he wouldn’t wear if he makes the team because NFL rules restrict defensive linemen to numbers between 60 and 79 and 90 and 99).
Sam will still have to go out and earn a chance to stick on the practice squad and then a move up to the active roster, and none of that is guaranteed. But all in all, Dallas might be the best place for him to get his second shot.