Michael Sam's ambitious attempt to become the first openly gay NFL player on an active roster suffered a major setback on Tuesday afternoon when the Dallas Cowboys released the defensive end from the practice squad. Seven weeks into the season, the Cowboys defense was playing better than it has in years, which perhaps made the rookie defensive end expendable.
It was a rather quiet stint for Sam after being waived by the St. Louis Rams before the start of the season. Once the subject of intense media coverage, Sam moved on without much attention after failing to earn a spot on the 53-man roster. After the cut was announced, Sam made no mention of ill feelings towards the Cowboys. He took to Twitter to thank the team and owner Jerry Jones and his family for the opportunity, quickly cutting down any potential talk of prejudice. There has been little to no outcry, compared to when fans and members of the media questioned why Sam fell from a projected third-round pick to a seventh-round selection of the Rams in the NFL draft in May.
Instead, Sam's release was a football decision. The Cowboys needed more depth at linebacker, with Bruce Carter missing Sunday’s victory over the New York Giants with a thigh injury, and Cameron Lawrence and Rolando McClain limping into the victory. The Cowboys simply elected to add linebacker Troy Davis and defensive tackle Ken Bishop over Sam. In some ways, Sam was always a longshot, but the potential was there to perhaps make a squad.
“I think it’s like so many guys, they just get rotated in and out and picked up. Guys go back and forth all the time on these depth charts, especially these young guys,” said Dan Shonka, the general manager and national scout for Ourlads, a top football scouting service. “And there is a need for pass rushers, there’s no question about it. I would think Michael would get picked up some time. Even right now, the Rams are struggling rushing the passer. So I think some team will pick him up, it’s just a lot of these first-year guys that are drafted late, it’s just hard for them to get locked on.”
Another factor is how Sam’s story has evolved, or rather stagnated, since the Rams selected him in the draft. It’s been fleshed out and unfolded for all to see and decipher. His story became a bit more interesting when he went to Dallas, a team that entered the 2014 season with what was considered an absymal defense. But the Cowboys, to some experts' surprise, own the best record (6-1) in the league, and a defense that struggled over the last three years is now ranked in the top 10 in points allowed. With an excellent chance at winning the NFC East division, team officials may not have been in the position to take a risk on a player who wasn't ready to make an immediate impact.
Perhaps the most unusual aspect of Sam's time with the Cowboys was the minimal attention it received in recent weeks, after a barrage of media reports over the summer about his chances of playing in the NFL. His presence on the Cowboys went almost unnoticed by many fans, with the Dallas Morning News conducting an admittedly unscientific poll that showed seven out of 15 fans didn’t even know he was on the practice squad.
It's certainly a far cry from the initial shock many had towards Sam. A protest was even conjured up by a Washington lobbyist, though nothing came of it. Publicly the league supported Sam’s choice to be the first openly gay draft prospect, but privately was another matter, with teams afraid he would prove a “distraction” or bring negative “attention.” Respected and Super Bowl-winning coach turned NBC commentator Tony Dungy even went on record to say that he thought Sam would be a distraction.
But eight months into Sam's story, and the NFL doesn't have a public relations catastrophe on their hands. In fact, it's quite the opposite.
“I really don’t see this being an issue [for the NFL]. It’s certainly accurate to say at this point he’s been given a fair chance in the NFL. Training camp with the Rams, seven weeks on the practice squad with the Cowboys,” Shawn McBride, Executive Vice President for Ketchum Sports & Entertainment said. “And the reality is the NFL is about performance and results and if he’s not at a level to earn himself a roster spot with an organization, that’s the harsh reality of competition and playing at a high level.
“From the coverage I’ve seen [Sam’s] orientation has been a non-issue in Dallas, and I really don’t see it as being a PR issue at this point for the league. In my opinion, his NFL future hinges more on his athletic ability and the personnel needs of the other 31 teams, much more so than any implication or effect of his orientation.”
Hope is not lost for Sam to still make a team. His sexual orientation likely won’t figure into his ability to make an NFL roster, but according to Shonka, his biggest hurdle is his size. Standing at 6-foot-2 and 256 pounds, Sam doesn’t have the ideal build for a defensive end in a 4-3 defensive scheme, which more than half the teams in the NFL utilize. The Cowboys switched to the 4-3 system before the start of the 2013 season, and no player has been spared in their adjustment, including former All-Pro defensive end DeMarcus Ware.
Shonka stressed that pass rushers are a commodity in high demand in today's NFL, and that Sam has the skills to fit better in a 3-4 defensive unit. Numerous teams continue to use that formation, which will increase Sam's chances of suiting up for a team one day.
“I think the big thing about him is that first-step quickness, that was his thing. And they timed that at the combine, and a lot of people didn’t realize that,” Shonka said. “He had a real explosive time. When he was coming off the left side he ran a 1.96 [seconds], when he was coming from the right he ran a 1.97. The average is probably a little over two seconds. That’s how he beat a lot of people in the SEC.”
Sam showed his ability to rush the passer during the preseason against other players trying to make a roster just like him. He totaled three sacks, two quarterback hits and four quarterback hurries. Shonka stressed that numerous factors go into a player making a roster, with opportunity being a crucial one. He added that Sam perhaps spending time in the Canadian Football League could help, as it has for others. Shonka also didn't rule out another shot in the NFL in the near future.
“I see him certainly being on a practice squad. The way a lot of these guys get on the 53-man roster is injuries. Coaches are afraid of getting fired all the time, and they’re going to go with a known commodity than a guy that doesn’t have experience.”