Cowboys welcome McClain despite issues with knee, suspension
OXNARD, Calif. (AP) Rolando McClain's surgically repaired right knee isn't ready for training camp, and the Dallas linebacker will miss the first four games of the regular season for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy.
Meantime, simply having McClain in California is good enough for defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli.
''I just like hanging out with him,'' Marinelli said. ''I like him in the meeting. I like him every time I see him. I just like him. And he's getting healthy. He's getting his rehab. He's getting all those things done. It's terrific having him here.''
McClain was in his home state of Alabama most of the offseason for rehabilitation after arthroscopic surgery, and that was after frequently missing practice in his first season with Dallas.
The absences naturally led to questions about the desire of a mercurial player who sat out in 2013 and twice walked away from Baltimore after saying he planned to come out of retirement. He was with the Ravens because Oakland had given up on him three disappointing years after drafting him in the top 10 in 2010.
The Cowboys traded for McClain last summer when they were desperate to replace Sean Lee after a season-ending knee injury in offseason practice. And he always had a coy answer when the topic of his desire came up. Until the 26-year-old arrived at training camp for his second season with the Cowboys.
''I know I caught a lot of flak during the season, like, oh, he missed practice,'' said McClain, who finished second to Barry Church with 108 tackles despite missing three games with the bad knee in addition to groin and shoulder issues. ''But no one understood it. I was already behind the eight ball, quote, unquote, playing hurt. Everybody plays hurt. But I was pretty injured. And I was fine with that. I put my body on the line for my teammates any day.''
Now McClain is putting his accountability on the line for his teammates while he waits to serve his suspension. He's eligible to practice at camp and can play in preseason games.
''I ain't perfect,'' he said. ''Nobody else is. I am working on perfecting my flaws and getting back and being healthy and doing my best to put it behind me.''
The Cowboys were pleased with the message they got from McClain, who also has been arrested three times since 2011 in his hometown of Decatur, Alabama. One of those cases was dismissed.
''He was straight up and very honest with all of us about what that situation was,'' coach Jason Garrett said. ''We sensed that there was something coming from the league so we were somewhat aware of that situation. He's someone who has been very honest and forthright with us right from the start. He understands the situation he is in.''
McClain isn't an insurance policy for Lee this time. If the oft-injured Lee stays healthy, they'll play side by side on a Dallas defense that went from bad in 2013 to adequate last year and now wants to be a difference-making unit.
Unless defensive end Greg Hardy fights his four-game suspension in court, Dallas will be missing its middle linebacker and the biggest free agent pick-up until Week 5. But without any further issues, McClain will be surrounded by better talent than he was a year ago.
''We know we have a great offense and we want to contribute to it as far as being a great defense,'' McClain said. ''And we've got Sean back, we've got Greg. But we've also got a lot of other guys working ... every day. And that's the most encouraging thing.''
The Cowboys have marveled at McClain's instincts since he first took the field for them last year. Maybe the only one who wasn't surprised was linebackers coach Matt Eberflus, who once gave McClain and Lee the same aptitude test. He said they both correctly answered 39 of 40 questions about schemes and adjustments.
''Nobody really knew,'' Marinelli said of McClain's arrival. ''We were all like, wow. As good of a talent as he is - he's got terrific talent - he's smart. He's just as smart.''
While he missed plenty of time in his Dallas debut, McClain did enough to rekindle a career that appeared to be over before the former Alabama star turned 25.
''I didn't know what the expectations were for me last year,'' McClain said. ''But now that I see the ability that I have and not only that but the love and the passion I have for the game. Honestly it feels like I'm back in college.''
And that's when McClain was at his best.
NOTES: QB Tony Romo returned for the first padded practice after missing Friday's session with a sty in his left eye. ... Lee was limited to mostly side work Saturday. The Cowboys have said they would ease Lee in after he missed last season with a torn knee ligament. ... Dallas brought back linebacker Will Smith, a seventh-round pick from last year. He spent part of last season on the practice squad before getting cut in May.