Michael Sam lost a numbers game -- not a political or moral one
AUG 30, 2014 7:00p ET
Being gay wasn't Michael Sam's problem.
Not being Ethan Westbrooks was.
Westbrooks is a 6-foot-4, 267-pounder who can play defensive end or tackle, a giant with a Hemi engine who can clog rush lanes or blot out the sun, a rookie who can work the "3" technique or the "5," depending on the circumstance.
Sam is a 6-2, 261-pound pass-rushing specialist. Which is fine. It's just that the St. Louis Rams already have three of those, and Robert Quinn, Chris Long and William Hayes are among the best in the National Football League, the best in the stinking world, at what they do. Of the top 15 defensive ends at chasing down quarterbacks from a 4-3 formation last fall, according to the analytics site ProFootballFocus.com, the Rams boasted three of them.
The NFL is a complicated place, but its basic tenets remain relatively simple. As a rookie, if you aren't selected in one of the first three rounds of the draft, your path to a roster will have to come via one of three ways: 1. A series of unforeseen devastating injuries or suspensions (or alien abductions) at your particular position; 2. You turn yourself into a one-man wrecking crew on special teams; or 3. You play your backside off to the point where only a blind man or a twit would dare to let another team snap you up.
PFF tracked 100 4-3 defensive ends who appeared on at least 25 percent of their club's defensive snaps this preseason. Westbrooks, an undrafted free agent out of West Texas A&M, graded out as the best in the NFL over the past five weeks, with a plus-15.0 mark overall, including a plus-8.1 grade on rushing the passer.
Sam was 43rd. Grade: plus-0.6 overall, minus-0.4 in pass-rushing situations.
PFF doesn't have a moral or religious agenda. PFF doesn't care who Sam goes home with after the game. PFF doesn't give two flips what he does on his own time.
At this level, it's not a political game. It's a numbers one. Sam lost.
"He has the ability to play someplace," Rams coach Jeff Fisher told reporters Saturday at the team practice complex after Sam, the first openly gay player ever selected in the NFL Draft, was among the final players cut from the squad. "It's got to be the right place."
St. Louis, less than two hours from Columbia, Mo., where Sam lifted trophies as a collegiate star at the University of Missouri, was one of those places. But it was the wrong position group, the wrong roster, at the wrong juncture.
This battle was always going to be about running uphill, and it had nothing to do with Sam's sexual orientation. In the end, the question was not whether the world was "ready" for an openly homosexual football player. It was this: Is he among the top eight defensive linemen who'll give us the best chance to win?
Any deeper than that, and you're probably running into this story with an agenda in hand. Or tilting at windmills that aren't there. Which is fine. Free country. Swing away, champ.
"It was a football decision," Fisher said Saturday. "No different from any other decision we make."
Football decisions in the NFL are cruel, cutthroat, swift and without compassion. And no days on the calendar are crueler than Saturday, when rosters must be whittled to a league-mandated 53 for the start of the regular season. Saturday is when good players walk, where lifelong dreams go to die.
Sam's NFL narrative isn't necessarily over; it just hit a very large speed bump. The former Mizzou standout is now eligible to be claimed, via waivers, for any other team's active roster. If no one bites, Sam may very well be invited to the Rams' practice squad, and the story resumes.
"I want to thank the entire Rams organization and the city of St. Louis for giving me this tremendous opportunity and allowing me to show I can play at this level," Sam said via a prepared statement roughly an hour after his release was official. "I look forward to continuing to build on the progress I made here toward a long and successful career.
"The most worthwhile things in life rarely come easy, this is a lesson I've always known. The journey continues ..."
Both sides of the gay-rights debate rolled their eyes when Sam was selected with the 249th overall pick, but the Rams at least gave the native Texan a long look in preseason games; Sam's 133 exhibition snaps ranked seventh-highest on the squad, and the Mizzou alum took advantage, recording a team-best three sacks in August.
Sam was solid.
Westbrooks was outstanding.
Nor was he alone. By all accounts, Sam wasn't responsible for the circus atmosphere that occasionally mushroomed around him. If he became a lightning rod, it wasn't so much because of his orientation as it was a media oversaturation that bordered on obsession. An ESPN report on Sam's alleged showering habits was widely panned as the lowest of a series of lows, mocked on Twitter by Long, decried by Fisher and ridiculed across the blogosphere.
"There was no distraction," Fisher told reporters Saturday. "If someone perceived (or) thought there was a distraction, they weren't in the building."
We may never fully know -- and certainly not immediately -- what effect Sam's sexuality had on his chances. While the Rams kept the most politically correct, progressive, tolerant public face possible, it's hard to believe that, even given Sam's affability and personal charm, his lifestyle would be universally accepted inside the locker room. This is America in the 21st century, but gay rights remains a passionate, divisive topic; in many circles, there's simply no middle ground on which to stand.
To some, Sam is a sinner and a moral abomination. To others, a hero and a trail-blazer. And ne'er the twain.
It's unlikely Sam was drafted toward the end of the seventh round as some kind of civil-rights initiative on the part of Fisher or general manager Les Snead. Nor was he waived out of some deep-seated moralistic awakening.
If you prayed for Sam to get cut, congratulations.
If you prayed for him to crash and burn, tough.
"He fit in very, very well," Fisher said.
And he still might. Roster gamesmanship is a part of cut-down Saturday, too; between Sam and Westbrooks, the former probably had a better shot of clearing waivers than the latter did. Because as cruel and cutthroat and heartless as the NFL monster can be, sometimes, the system makes the hard decisions for you.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @SeanKeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.