IRVING, Texas – Let's call it The Dilemma.
Or maybe more appropriately, The Dilemmas.
Here we are heading into the third preseason game, 6 p.m. Saturday against the Miami Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium. That is, providing the tropical disturbance bearing down on the Caribbean Islands doesn't suddenly pick up steam.
The first round of cuts, down to 75, come Tuesday, then the fourth preseason game on Thursday and the final cuts to 53 on Saturday. So that means there are only seven practices remaining before the Cowboys must open the season against the San Francisco 49ers on Sept. 7 at AT&T Stadium.
The clock is ticking.
And the Cowboys still are tinkering, still trying to figure out just who will be the starting middle linebacker, which in turn affects just who will be the starting outside linebackers.
They still are tinkering with just who will be the starting weak-side defensive end, which is turning into an all-comers meet, and that in turn possibly affects one of the starting outside linebacker positions, meaning stay with me on this one. [embedded_ad]
While the starting offense is set in stone, and should be on display in totality once again Saturday night for maybe as much as a half, the defense continues to be this jigsaw puzzle with pieces scattered all over the table. And as Jason Garrett is wont to say, this continues to be a process that, who knows, might not even conclude until the end of September instead of what you would have hoped for, Labor Day.
Someone asked this week, why is that?
Sean Lee tore his ACL the first non-contact practice of the offseason.
DeMarcus Lawrence suffered a fractured fifth metatarsal in his right foot four padded practices into training camp, and won't return until the first of October at the very earliest, the same time Orlando Scandrick's four-game suspension affecting the secondary expires.
Anthony Spencer's impending status is still a mystery, so to me the probability of the one-time Pro Bowl linebacker/defensive end being ready to play any time that first month of the season has lottery-winning odds.
And now the Cowboys discover that a possible candidate to start at middle linebacker, and at the very least serve in a backup role, DeVonte Holloman, has a serious neck/vertebrae condition forcing him to immediately leave the game of football.
Yeah, a dilemma to say the least.
Or as Garrett says, "It's an on-going discussion."
No kidding. And on and on and on how the Cowboys will fill these two very important positions in a 4-3 defense.
The wildcard in this whole discussion is Rolando McClain, the fourth-year linebacker who has unretired for the second time in his young career and is working on a re-re-start. The guy is talented, real talented. He's tall. He's long. He has reach. He has lateral speed. He has a real knack to get to the football. His heart does appear to be in the right place.
Family problems and maybe how the Raiders handled him when those knocked him off kilter at the end of the 2012 season.
"You reassess your life, get things back in order," says McClain, who exhibited eye-opening insight during an interview for Cowboys Special Edition With Jerry Jones, airing Saturday night on CBS-11 (locally) after the game. "God first, then family, then football, then everything is in line. I can say it smiling now because I made things so much harder the first time around.
"Now that I've figured that out, I've got my foundation set. Football is where it needs to be. I'm excited to be a Cowboy. Who wouldn't want to be a Cowboy?"
Great, and the Cowboys would love to love him, too, for him to become the starting middle linebacker if …
McClain can stay on the field. Physically he hasn't been able to, not during training camp and not even this week. Seems as though every time he starts getting reps with the first team, something happens. Exhaustion. A quad strain. A cramp. The after-effects of the cramps. Trusting availability is big in the NFL.
Now it does not seem he is one of those maligners. It's just that until he stepped on the field in Oxnard, Calif., he really hadn't played any football in pads since Nov. 25, 2012, and not in any sort of game until this past Saturday's preseason appearance against Baltimore, nearly 20 months removed from all-out contact. His body must acclimate.
"I have seen him practice," Garrett said. "Now, he, like everybody on our team, has to do it again and again and again. He has some things that have sidetracked him here for a day or two throughout training camp. But obviously being out at practice playing play after play, day after day matters.
But until that happens, until he's able to push through some of these nagging injuries, it's hard for the Cowboys to put full trust in him to play 50-60 plays a game. That is why this linebacker dilemma really is two-fold:
One, preparing to put your three best linebackers out there if indeed McClain is starting.
And two, put your three best linebackers out there if he's not, and along with possibly taking one of those three, strong-side 'backer Kyle Wilber, and putting his hand on the ground at that troublesome, still unsettled defensive end spot, the other dilemma.
So here was Thursday's first-team linebacker look, with McClain just getting back into practice after Tuesday's cramps and working with the second team: Rookie Anthony Hitchens, after having been moved from the middle to the weak-side, back in the middle. Justin Durant, having been working in the middle all camp long, working on the weak-side where Bruce Carter has been. And … Carter, who the coaching staff originally wanted Durant to challenge for the starting weak-side job when Lee was projected to be in the middle, now on the strong-side.
All basically just to see how that works, which if it does gives the Cowboys the leeway to possibly use Wilber, the one-time defensive end moved to strong-side linebacker last season out of injury-mandated necessity, at the weak-side defensive end spot (usually right) where veteran Jeremy Mincey has just been OK since Lawrence's injury caused him to vacate the competition for now.
See what I mean, enough to make your head swim.
Which also is why Garrett says of this third preseason game, "So we as coaches have to make sure we give them chances to show what they can do," and since the fourth preseason game is sort of a slough-off game, this game Saturday night could very well go a long way toward deciding just who lines up where on this defense come Sept. 7.
Also adding to this dual-position intrigue is this what if:
What if Spencer's knee comes around sooner rather than later, although he told me Thursday while he's doing some more running and cutting, along with lateral movements, he does so while still using the resistance cords, not totally on his own. He would like to prove he's capable of playing the first month of the season, which would mean not being placed on the mandatory six-week, inactive PUP list. If he's ready to go, although he hasn't played but one game since December of 2012, that would help greatly at the troublesome defensive end position.
A whole lot of ifs, right, so late in the preseason.
And maybe the biggest being if McClain, the one-time eighth pick in the draft, can remain healthy enough to prove he's still the real deal at middle linebacker.
"He has shown he has some exceptional things that we don't have other players that can do," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. "That's about as good as you can get right now."
But can you get those "exceptional things" in time to not only put the middle linebacker piece in place for San Francisco, but allow this staff to then fit the necessary pieces in around him?
"He's got a good chance to step in and help us get over the loss of Sean Lee," Jones said. "As I'm sitting here right now, I think he will be able to. Absence a setback, he should be able to play against San Francisco, and probably may have a chance to be a starter and really have a chance to get a lot more plays in that game than what we could have imagined."
No, they couldn't have imagined that when they turned over that rock the first of July, simply taking a long shot out of necessity on a player in limbo.
And now, to think that very guy could be their major dilemma-buster.