ARLINGTON, Texas – It's ironic, because this is as close as Rolando McClain has come to playing for the Cowboys since January – but he's about to be as far away as possible.
Slowly but surely, the veteran linebacker has worked his way back from offseason knee surgery to the point that he practiced both days this week. It's theoretically possible he could even play Thursday night in the preseason finale against Houston.
Despite all that progress, though, this fact remains: as soon as the Cowboys finalize their 53-man roster this weekend, they'll have to send away two of their most important defenders – McClain and Greg Hardy – to begin their four-game suspensions.
"It's always difficult when you don't have those guys," said Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones. "I know it's hard on the teammates, you go to war, you go to camp, you fight, you live together every day and you're working hard to get better and then all of a sudden it's taken away from you for four games."
NFL rules prohibit suspended players from even being in the team facility – let alone attending meetings or practices – while they serve suspensions. As a result, the Cowboys will have to hope the duo of Hardy and McClain takes the initiative to stay ready for their scheduled return on Oct. 5.
"I think we've got a good plan with them," Jones said. "Obviously, our guys do a great job of giving them direction on what they might want to be doing and how to not lose ground in terms of what they've gained here in training camp."
Jones declined to comment on whether Hardy and McClain would remain in the Dallas-Fort Worth area while they served their suspensions, or go elsewhere. Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said their location shouldn't matter much if their priorities are in order.
"If they're the right kind of guy and football is important him and being their best is important to him, they're going to handle things the right way," he said.
The Cowboys will be hoping so, as both defenders are major factors in the team's playoff hopes. Hardy was brought in as a free agent to bolster the flagging pass rush, while McClain's physicality and playmaking ability at middle linebacker was one of the surprises of last season.
McClain was activated off the Physically Unable to Perform list on Monday, and Hardy has had five weeks to knock the rust off after missing most of last season. It seems like an indicator that the Cowboys hope to have both in the mix as soon as their suspensions have ended.
"Suffice it to say they're going to be working hard to get ready to come back and play," Garrett said.