OXNARD, Calif. – From a story standpoint, it’s a no-brainer why reporters from both Dallas and Oakland would rush to talk to
McClain had just finished his second joint practice with the Raiders, the team that drafted him No. 8 overall in 2010 – the team that released him following a disappointing three-year stint that saw him battle legal issues and differences with the coaching staff.
“It actually felt good, man – I know so many of them. We shook hands, we said ‘Hi,’ we had smiles,” McClain said. “It was fun, but just like practicing with them in Oakland, you say hey when you’re in between plays, but once you go back out there, you’re all work.”
The reason for the Dallas media’s interest in McClain is more about an uncertain future than a sordid past. After three arrests and two retirements during his four years in the league, the Cowboys are hoping McClain can use his top-10 talent to bolster their ailing linebacker corps.
“Boy, when he makes a play, you can see the quality of the play – just like the one he made on Murray,” said Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones. “He’s a difference-maker out there, if we can just get him out there.”
Jones’ last comment has described McClain’s time in training camp to this point. As he works his way back into playing shape, minor knocks and injuries have limited his reps and forced him out of the preseason opener against San Diego.
Given his history – McClain retired twice during a short stint with the Ravens, in addition to his arrests and his release in Oakland – questions are bound to arise when McClain misses playing time. Despite those questions, McClain said he isn’t worried about outside perception.
“I honestly had personal reasons I had to take care of to walk away from the game, and I don’t care what anybody else think – I needed that time for me and my family,” he said. “That’s important, so that’s the time I needed to take. I took it, I got myself better, and I’m back in football. I’m glad to be with the Cowboys.”
Garrett said he hasn’t had reason to question McClain’s commitment through the three weeks McClain had been with the team at training camp.
“You can tell he likes football. Unfortunately he’s been dealing with a couple of different things that he’s been on the practice field and off the practice field,” said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett. “But when he’s played, he’s done some good things for us.”
To that end, it seems like the past week has seen progress. The plan for McClain throughout the past month has been to bring him along slowly. But it’s worth noting that Wednesday’s practice was McClain’s third-straight without missing.
“I’m trying to get my body back right. I ain’t all the way there yet, I’ll be honest, I’m not there yet,” McClain said. “The coaches are doing a great job getting me acclimated and getting me to that point, but it ain’t no rush. It’ll be ready when we’re ready, but I feel alright.”
That was bound to raise questions about McClain’s condition for a game – like Saturday’s preseason date against Baltimore, for example. The Alabama standout has looked explosive and fast at times in practices, but he emphatically explained the only thing that can determine game condition – actual snaps in games.
“Being in football shape is being able to train your mind and tell yourself you aren’t tired. That’s football shape – it ain’t got nothing to do with wind sprints or none of that,” he said. “Football shape is being able to fight through adversity and go from one play to the next no matter how tired you are.”
It remains to be seen what the Cowboys will do with him this weekend, but McClain said he wasn’t concerned with the timeline so much as his own preparation. Asked if he was thinking about a potential starting job, he quipped, “I’m thinking about meetings.”
“Mr. Jones and Coach Garrett, they’ll decide when they want me to play, how much they want me to play and what I need to do in order to be ready for the season,” he said. “It’s all in the air. I want to do whatever they want me to do.”
For the time being, it doesn’t seem the Cowboys are concerned with that. There are still three preseason games to play, and the season opener is still roughly a month away. Garrett said he simply wants to see consistency to go with McClain’s talent.
“He flashes as a guy who knows what the hell he is doing. He reads things. He strikes the runner. He makes plays on the ball, on the back end. So there are a lot of things to like about him,” he said. “But again, it’s still early he’s got to do it again and again and again.”