Sham: Rico Gathers Reason Enough To Watch Some Preseason Football

The Arizona Cardinals' head coach obviously isn't afraid of the NFL sheriff. "None of our starters is playing" in Thursday night's Hall of Fame game against the Cowboys, Bruce Arians said early in the week.

You won't hear such a proclamation from Cowboys' head coach Jason Garrett. Garrett has tried to be honest before and has heard from the NFL's Madison Avenue suits, who apparently are operating on the misapprehension that if you don't actually tell fans none of the star players is appearing in most preseason games, the fans won't catch on, and they won't mind paying those regular-season prices for tryouts and auditions.

Whatever. We have bigger fish to fry. They're not fining me, so I'll tell you. Maybe three of the Cowboys' starters play in Canton, and them not for long.

That doesn't mean, though, the game is not worth watching, and we'll say the same next week in the preseason Week One game with the Rams. Here the building blocks are identified. Here the presumptions of weeks of OTAs and minicamps are put to the test. Here you see who can handle the competition, even more than in camp. Hate preseason football all you like, but there are no two ways about it: The only way to find out how a player plays football is to watch him play football.

There is no shortage of interesting storylines for the Cowboys and their faithful in these early practice-game weeks. Is there any offensive line depth? (Let's watch newcomer Byron Bell and young veteran Kadeem Edwards.) How about all those rookie defensive backs? (One of them, Jourdan Lewis, remains in Oxnard with a minor hamstring tweak. Cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie and Marquis White and safety Xavier Woods will play, a lot.) Are there any rookie free agents who can crack the squad? (Defensive tackle Lewis Neal might. And we'll get a look at some others on special teams.)

But setting aside the Mystery/Miracle of Jaylon Smith, which will likely not raise the curtain this week, there is one clear and compelling training camp story that can only begin to play out in games: What's the deal with Rico Gathers?

Gathers, for the uninitiated, is a physical specimen. A basketball player of some accomplishment at Baylor, he played that sport like a beast. An occasional Big 12 TV announcer may have been heard to proclaim just a couple of years ago, "If that young man wants to pursue football, some NFL team will give him a chance." The Cowboys did just that in the sixth round last year because why not? Gathers hadn't played football since the eighth grade, and he literally did not know come here from sic 'em, but the potential was too great not to roll the dice.

In the 2016 preseason, Gathers got only 15 snaps. Made an eye opening catch and run in the last game, the kind that makes sideline observers look at each other. It wasn't enough to get claimed by another team when the Cowboys released him, and they were able to get him to the practice squad. There, Gathers worked hard. He improved. In actual fact, it would have been difficult for him not to. To say Gathers was not ready to play in the NFL is to say your 10-year-old with a role in the school musical is not ready to take a lead in Hamilton on Broadway.

The hard work continued, and now our story gets, shall we say, open to interpretation. Gathers at times during the offseason proclaimed himself ready to be unleashed, the heir apparent to future Hall of Famer Jason Witten (who is not ready to go anywhere, just so you know). The degree to which his proclamations were well received by veteran teammates should be measured on a sliding scale.

"He's a great kid, a really good person. He's worked incredibly hard," says his position coach, Steve Loney. "He also still has a lot to learn. He got a little relaxed in the two-minute drill (Tuesday). We still have to remind him how to play situational football. But he's come such a long way."

The truth is Gathers is leaps and bounds ahead of training camp a year ago … and nowhere near where he thinks he is. He still shows signs of immaturity (helmet-slamming has become an occasional hobby, and he was escorted out of practice for a time over the weekend for becoming involved in two separate scuffles). One respected veteran player suggested the other day, "You guys (media) aren't helping by overhyping him. He's an athlete, but it takes a lot to play in the NFL. He's not there."

But he could be. If he does, what a weapon. And the next month will tell all of us, including him, what he's learned and what's still on the curriculum. Coaches indicate they'd be surprised if Gathers doesn't play four quarters in Canton, and at least three the next couple of weeks before the veterans and starters start tuning up. To his credit, Gathers is ready.

"The preseason is basically my time," he said after one practice this week. "I'm completely different than last year. I used to run like a basketball player. Now I run like a football player."

Next step: show he can play like one.

One highly placed Cowboys executive said days after the April draft that "Gathers will make the 53 man roster." Most coaches and scouts agree exposing him to waivers this year would almost certainly mean losing him. The organization is not interested in that result.

They're also not yet ready to put him in a real football game. Rico Gathers is still a willing work in progress a long way away. But watching what he's learned in preseason, starting in Canton, will be fascinating. Reason to watch and listen. Because the only way a football player can learn to play football, is to play football.

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