IRVING, Texas – At the Chicago Bears' practice facility, Jay Ratliff told local reporters Monday night's meeting with the Cowboys was just another game.
It's been roughly six weeks since the four-time Pro Bowler was released by the Cowboys, bringing a disappointing conclusion to a lengthy ordeal regarding injury issues. Ratliff told reporters in Chicago "I don't get caught up in all that silly rivalry stuff, or some payback."
At Dallas' Valley Ranch facility, the Cowboys aren't so sure that's true.
"Playing against your old team you're going to have – anybody, if I leave I'm going to try to come back and beat the crap out of them," said Jason Hatcher. "It's not another football game. He's going to be up for it."
The strange story Ratliff left behind in Dallas isn't one either party is likely to forget any time soon. A groin injury suffered late in 2012 took Ratliff off the field during the final stretch of the season, and it kept him out of offseason activities.
Originally expected to participate in training camp, he suffered a hamstring injury during the pre-camp conditioning test. The setback eventually landed Ratliff on the Physically Unable to Perform List, where he spent the first weeks of the season before the Cowboys cut him Oct. 16.
Later, Ratliff's agent, Mark Slough, would say Ratliff's groin injury from the prior season would force him out of football for a year, if not more. But the veteran signed with Chicago on Nov. 3, and he took his first snaps as a Bear this past weekend.
Orlando Scandrick, who spent five seasons with Ratliff from 2008-12, said despite the strange circumstances, it's unwise to place too much personal focus on game preparation.
"You don't want to put too much time and effort into a personal vendetta – then you take the focus off the task at hand," he said. "You want to give yourself the best chance to succeed or the best chance to play well."
But even if the teams themselves aren't focusing on the reunion, Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones said he'll be paying attention to it.
"I wish him the best on an individual basis," Jones said on 105.3 The Fan on Tuesday morning. "It just would be frustrating to see him get in there and play when most thought he couldn't play when he left us – as far as he was concerned and his approach to what he was going to be doing this year."
The Cowboys' woes on the defensive line have been well-documented this year – so much so that Ratliff's injury seems like ancient history. Jones and his front office have rotated 17 different players into the front four because of injury concerns, which makes Ratliff's apparent health all the more noteworthy.
"With the shape that we're in on our defensive front, as far as I'm concerned, he needs to be over here helping the Dallas Cowboys," Jones said.
Ironically enough, though, Ratliff's departure has paved the way for a monstrous season from Hatcher. In the Cowboys' 4-3 scheme, Ratliff would have occupied the three-technique position and shifted Hatcher to nose tackle – a prospect Hatcher said he wouldn't have enjoyed.
"Horrible – I'm not a nose tackle. I probably would have asked to get traded or something, because I don't like to play the nose," he said. "I'm not going to say I'm glad Rat's gone, because I wish we had him because he's a great football player. But God works in mysterious ways. I'm at the position, I'm making plays, and having a good year. So I've got to keep it up." [embedded_ad]
It will be interesting to see how Ratliff mans the position for Chicago. He logged 23 snaps and one tackle in the loss to the Vikings, but the Bears expect he will improve that total going forward.
"He's a great football player, and they're going to have their work cut out if he's healthy," Hatcher said. "He's one of the best interior linemen in the game when he's healthy."
It's sure to be a continuing storyline, even if it's downplayed. Cowboys coach Jason Garrett declined to comment when asked about playing his old player. But even if it is more than just a game to Ratliff – in a league this competitive, with the playoffs at stake, that's not exactly unusual.
"I'm sure he'll be a little fired up and have a little something to prove, but that's the norm," Scandrick said.