ST. LOUIS -- Michael Sam dismissed the thought that his sexuality has cost him a spot in the NFL.
"I don't like to think that way," Sam said in an Oprah Winfrey Network documentary that aired Saturday night. "But I do believe I'm a very talented football player and I'm going to continue working hard and try to get that opportunity to play in the league."
The first openly gay player drafted in the NFL has no regrets.
"I did everything I was supposed to do. I did everything right," Sam said. "I am proud of how I handled things."
Sam said coming out was the right thing to do. He would have preferred the news come out after he informed the team that drafted him, but he feared it would be revealed and felt pressure to control the situation.
"It didn't need to be public," Sam said. "Why do gay people have to do it?"
The production was billed as the player's first TV appearance since being cut by the Dallas Cowboys in mid-October and played like a personal "Hard Knocks." The 90-minute program was followed by a one-on-one with Winfrey, who asked Sam whether he believed sexual orientation is hurting his chances, and how long he'd keep trying.
"As long as I can," Sam replied.
The documentary details countless anxious hours during the NFL draft, which Sam called "the longest three days of my life." The New York Jets telephoned his agents to say they weren't interested, and the Cowboys texted to say they were out, too.
Sam, who rose to stardom after a difficult childhood in tiny Hitchcock, Texas, asked that the sound on the TV be turned down at one point before the St. Louis Rams took him late in the seventh round.
Without McClain, the Cowboys can carry a ninth defensive lineman on the game-day roster for the first time this season when they take on the Redskins.
It is the second time a teammate's health might have saved Melton’s spot. He was facing the possibility of being inactive for the Dec. 4 meeting against the Chicago Bears, but Josh Brent suffered a calf injury in practice.
With Brent ready to play Sunday, Melton was in the crosshairs.
While it is still possible the Cowboys will go with eight defensive linemen, there is not another spot to add depth that makes sense. Would they go with an eighth offensive lineman if they want to rest some of the regulars before the playoffs? Would they add a defensive back?
Neither seems likely.
So as we Ponder the Cowboys’ 46-man roster for the final time in the regular season, Melton gets saved.
The guess at the inactives: quarterback Dustin Vaughan, tackle Doug Free, tackle Donald Hawkins, defensive end Kenneth Boatright, safety Jakar Hamilton, linebacker Dekoda Watson and McClain.
McClain was ruled out of the game with an illness. On Monday, his home in Alabama burned to the ground and is subject to an investigation. He did not practice on Wednesday in part to deal with that as well as a sore knee. He had been listed as probable for the game.
He did not make the flight to Washington with the team.
DeMarco Murray was sent home from Wednesday’s practice because of an illness as well. He said he received a flu shot on Monday.
According to the coaches’ breakdown, McClain leads the Cowboys in tackles with 108. He also has one sack, nine tackles for loss, five quarterback pressures, two interceptions, five pass deflections and a forced fumble.
This will be the third game McClain will miss this season. He was inactive on Sept. 21 against the St. Louis Rams and did not play in the Nov. 9 win against the Jacksonville Jaguars because of a knee injury.
With McClain out, rookie Anthony Hitchens will start at middle linebacker with Bruce Carter and Kyle Wilber as the outside linebackers.
Since beating the Jacksonville Jaguars in London, Melton has not played more than 34 snaps. Against the Chicago Bears and in the rematch against the Philadelphia Eagles he played 21 and 25 snaps. Last week against the Indianapolis Colts, he played 33 snaps mostly because the Colts had to throw the ball because of a big deficit.
The Redskins don't throw it a ton. Robert Griffin III presents a challenge with the zone read. Alfred Morris has had a lot of success on the ground against the Cowboys.
In order to keep a ninth defensive linemen active for the game, the Cowboys would have to go light somewhere else. The most logical spot would be at wide receiver, but Jason Garrett wants to have rookie Devin Street active in case something were to happen to Dez Bryant or Terrance Williams. Fullback Tyler Clutts could be a choice but the Cowboys don't want to tinker with their running game success.
The Cowboys want to get Brent more work before the playoffs.He has played in just one game since 2012. Given his size and the importance of the run defense in the playoffs, Brent could be a big part of the rotation in the playoffs.
So as we put together the final inactives of the regular season, here is the guess: quarterback Dustin Vaughan, tackle Doug Free, tackle Donald Hawkins, defensive end Kenneth Boatright, safety Jakar Hamilton, linebacker Dekoda Watson and … Melton.
- Jason Garrett's next contract
- Is Week 17 like a preseason game?
- Anthony Hitchens' future
- The role of Jeremy Mincey
- Addressing the defensive line in the draft
@toddarcher: I think you'll see another four-year deal, maybe five. Jason Garrett was given a four-year deal when he took over. I think you'll see Jerry match that. He gave Bill Parcells a four-year deal at the start. Same with Wade Phillips. I'm not sure Garrett is receiving enough credit for what's happened this year. He essentially took himself out of the offense when he brought in Scott Linehan. He has let his coaches coach. One thing that I've been impressed with Garrett is how hard his players play. Even when things don't go well, effort is not the reason and has not been the reason. He has found a way to keep the players' ears and that's difficult to do when you're not winning early and people are questioning everything you do.
@toddarcher: I don't think so. The way Garrett has talked this week and practiced his players, they're going to try to win the game. That doesn't mean he will keep his players in there the entire time if it's going poorly. At some point there will be a need for discretion if the Washington Redskins take a big lead. I understand he would be taking risk of injury, but I think he's doing the right thing. You can't spend the entire year talking about the importance of being your best each day and then shut it down. And then you can't expect a team as young as this to pick it up when the playoffs start. Now, if they are trailing by 10-plus points in the third quarter and the tenor of the game isn't going well for the offense, then I'd sit Tony Romo, DeMarco Murray, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten.
@toddarcher: This is a hard call. I think he might be at his best as a middle linebacker, but he has done good things on the weak-side as well. Sean Lee will be back in 2015. If Rolando McClain is re-signed, then that takes Anthony Hitchens' best spots out of the mix. I don't view him as a great fit for the strong-side spot, but he's a decent fill in. I've said this before but he might be better served as a backup considering how banged up Lee, McClain and Justin Durant, should he come back in 2015, have been. This is just off the top of my head, but could the Cowboys use Hitchens as the Mike and move Lee to the Will? Lee's move to the Will has been mentioned in relation to McClain's future, but maybe Hitchens can have a say there too.
@toddarcher: Absolutely true. It's not just leading the pre-game huddle either. It's every day during the week in practice. To me, that's more important than being the guy that gets the team around him in pregame. It's about how you work, what you do and then how you perform. He's a little bit of a sage in that locker room. But he'll also tell you there are plenty of leaders on this team. We know the leaders on offense -- Jason Witten, Tony Romo -- but Mincey isn't the only defensive leader. You've got guys like Orlando Scandrick, Barry Church and even Rolando McClain who have been quality leaders.
@toddarcher: There is no doubt the Cowboys should do this. I think defensive line is the top need going into 2015 and I say that understanding the possibility that Brandon Carr might not be back and Morris Claiborne is coming back from a serious knee injury. Pressure makes defenses. The Cowboys need to find catalytic players, as Bill Parcells called them. I'm not sure DeMarcus Lawrence is that guy just yet, but I think he is coming off a pretty good game against Indianapolis. Todd McShay's first mock draft had the Cowboys taking a cornerback. That's a decent idea and the top pass rushers might be off the board by the time the Cowboys pick, but they need to do something to help the defensive line early and often in the draft.
- The Cowboys are virtually locked into the No. 3 seed but there are chances to secure home-field advantage or a bye with wins. Coach Jason Garrett didn’t go all Herm Edwards (“You play to win the game!”) but he will play his guys Sunday.
- The Cowboys don’t face a must-win in Week 17 for the first time in three seasons thanks to last week’s win against the Indianapolis Colts. They are in the playoffs. But can they make a postseason run?
- The Cowboys had six players – all on offense – make the Pro Bowl: Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, DeMarco Murray, Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin.
- It is the fourth Pro Bowl selection for Romo, but he hopes he and his teammates can’t play in the game. He hopes they’ll be busy the following week.
- The selections of Smith, Frederick and Martin validate the Cowboys’ line as the best in the NFL.
- The reason for the defensive turnaround? Look no further than coordinator Rod Marinelli.
- This should surprise nobody: If the Cowboys don’t get a long-term deal done with Dez Bryant, they will give him the franchise tag.
- The Rolando McClain trade worked out OK for the Cowboys. They’ll gladly ship the Baltimore Ravens a sixth-round pick next spring.
- Jean-Jacques Taylor brings you the final regular-season edition of The Boys.
- ESPN Redskins reporter John Keim and I bring you this week’s game preview.
On Friday, Murray acknowledged it would be a special feeling to break Smith’s record but he deflected the attention away from himself.
He needs 29 yards in Sunday’s season finale to surpass Smith’s 1,773-yard season of 1995.
Murray leads the NFL with 1,745 yards on a career-high 373 carries. He also has 12 rushing touchdowns.
Smith, the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, attended last week’s game against the Indianapolis Colts in part to see Murray break the record. Owner and general manager Jerry Jones said Smith is rooting for Murray to break the mark.
“Obviously he’s the best running back to play in the league and records are meant to be broken,” Murray said. “And I’m sure this one will be broken sometime soon, whoever else comes along. That’s what they’re for and you’ve got to cherish the moment and move on and really know what’s important and that’s obviously winning games.”
Perhaps the most gratifying part of Murray’s season has been the ability to be on the field. He missed 11 games in his first three years with ankle, foot and knee injuries. Last week against the Colts, he played six days after undergoing surgery to repair a broken left hand.
“I don’t think it was (playing in 16 games), it was just the fact that I knew I could play,” said Murray, who was voted to his second Pro Bowl on Tuesday. “I wasn’t going to let a hand take me out of the game no matter what. No matter what I knew I had to grind through it and tough it out some way, somehow to stay on the field.”
Murray said he feels fresh and healthy despite the added work and the injured hand. He also knows how important he is to the offense's success.
“I feel that I give us a good chance to do some pretty good things when I’m on the field that I kind of give us a complete run game, and help on the outside, and give (Dez Bryant) a lot of one-on-one matchups along with (Jason Witten), so we’ve all been healthy this year offensively,” Murray said. “That’s been huge for us and we’ve all been able to play well and make some plays running the ball, passing the ball, things like that. So I love playing football and love being on the field and happy I’m here.”
Murray returned to practice on Friday and is listed as probable for Sunday.
“I’m feeling better, feeling a lot better,” Murray said. “The trainers took care of me.”
Murray said he will take fluids intravenously before the game, which is something many players do but not something he has done in the past. He will continue to drink a lot of water the night before the game. Earlier this season he explained to CBS' Jim Nantz and Phil Simms that he gains 10 pounds in the 24 hours leading up to kickoff for added strength.
“It’s just something I read about and something that makes me fresh,” Murray said. “During practice and during a game I don’t like to drink a lot of water anyway, so I stay hydrated that day and leading up the night before. It just makes my body feel fresher, makes me feel more limber and just good for you.”
Murray said his surgically-repaired left hand is still sore but feeling better. He will continue to wear the hard plastic shell on top of his hand for added protection.
“Obviously the extra padding is different for me,” Murray said. “Hopefully after this game I’ll be able to downside a little bit to something different and be able to use my hand a little bit better.”
Linebacker Bruce Carter was added to the injury report on Friday with a knee injury. He was limited in practice, but is listed as probable for Sunday. Defensive tackle Josh Brent (calf), linebacker Rolando McClain (knee), guard Zack Martin (ankle), safety Jeff Heath (thumb) and quarterback Tony Romo (back) are also probable.
Right tackle Doug Free missed his sixth straight day of practice and is listed as doubtful with an ankle injury. Coach Jason Garrett said Free has made progress. He was doing some treadmill work on the zero-gravity machine on Friday.
Linebacker Dekoda Watson will miss his sixth straight game with a hamstring injury.
In eight games, against Washington with Haslett running the defense, Bryant has caught only 39 passes for 542 passes and five touchdowns. He has one 100-yard game, which was kind of fluky because he scored an 85-yard touchdown on a broken play.
In the other seven games, Bryant has caught more than four passes once and doesn’t have a game with more than 73 yards receiving.
It’ll be interesting to see what he does in this game because Bryant, like a lot of players on this team, is playing his best football right now.
Since catching only two of 10 passes directed toward him for 15 yards in a 28-17 loss to Arizona, Bryant has caught 34 passes for 586 yards and eight touchdowns. He has 11 catches of more than 20 yards during that span.
Where Bryant has made considerable improvement is with his mentality during the game. Like all receivers, he gets frustrated when the ball doesn’t come his way, but he trusts Tony Romo and play-caller Scott Linehan to get him the ball so he doesn’t pout nearly as much as he did in other years.
“Dez is an emotional guy. He’s a passionate guy. He loves football,” Garrett said. “He loves this team. He wants to contribute to this team in every way possible. Emotion is good. It’s line one in life and it’s line one in football.”
Bryant also knows that when teams double-cover him, it gives receivers Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley and Dwayne Harris opportunities to make plays.
Sooner or later, Bryant knows the ball is coming his way. The Cowboys have thrown 144 fewer passes and have 69 fewer completions than last season, but Bryant’s stats are nearly identical.
In 2013, Bryant caught 93 passes for 1,233 yards and 13 touchdowns. This season, he has 84 receptions for 1,221 yards and 14 touchdowns.
“Dez has been getting people’s attention for a long time.” Linehan said. “He’s had a great career so far, and he’ll continue to get better and better because he works hard to improve each season and each game.
“I’ve been blessed to be around some great receivers and how they handle the attention they get. He’s earned the attention he’s getting.”
The question is whether Linehan can find a way this week to make him more productive against Haslett’s scheme.
Griffin was a full participant in practice Friday, two days after he was limited because of soreness in his throwing shoulder. The Redskins did not practice Thursday.
Redskins coach Jay Gruden said they had planned to remove Griffin in Friday's practice if he felt any soreness. But that never happened. Gruden also said they'd re-evaluate Griffin Saturday morning just to make sure his shoulder is OK.
"The big thing is we wanted to make sure he didn't have a lot of pain when he threw and he didn't," Gruden said. "He looked good, made all the throws... We feel very confident he will be OK."
He runs the risk of somebody getting hurt, but it’s something he feels he has to do.
The Cowboys have been the NFL’s best road team. They are the only unbeaten team away from home and with a win they would have the franchise’s second perfect road record in history. The 1968 Cowboys went 7-0.
Since the 1970 merger, seven teams have posted perfect road records. Six of the seven made it to the Super Bowl.
In order to be the eighth team to go undefeated away from home, the Cowboys will have to fare well on third down.
In the first meeting the Cowboys converted on just 5 of 12 chances, which was a season low up until that point and kicked off a five-week spell in which they didn’t convert at least half their opportunities. Jim Haslett always gives the Cowboys fits and the Redskins would like nothing more than to sweep their NFC East rivals.
It just won’t happen. There is too much for the Cowboys to play for whether they get a first-round bye or not.
My prediction: Cowboys 31, Redskins 17
Murray will play his second game since breaking his left hand Sunday against the Washington Redskins. He will continue to wear the hard plastic shell on the top of his hand for added protection. The stitches from the Dec. 15 surgery have yet to be removed.
“I got it from the man last weekend, he’s rooting for him,” owner and general manager Jerry Jones said on 105.3 The Fan in Dallas. “I’m talking about Emmitt Smith. He’s rooting for DeMarco. (He) actually came to the game in hopes he might go down there and congratulate him should he have broken it then. I know he’s at peace with it. We are so proud of what that means for the entire offensive unit and certainly the offensive line. We’re all well aware of it and it would e important if we can go up there and get that done.”
The only players missing practice are Doug Free (ankle) and Dekoda Watson (hamstring). The Cowboys hope that both will be available for the playoffs.
Free is dealing with a bone spur in his left ankle as well as a stress fracture. He has missed five games with a broken right foot and left ankle issues.
“He needs to be healthy before he can come back and Doug works very hard, but his injury requires a little bit of time,” coach Jason Garrett said. “So we’ve given him that. Obviously didn’t play last week. Jermey Parnell did a nice job in his absence, but we like Doug Free and we’re trying to get him back as quickly as he can. He has made progress this week.”
He was disruptive against the run, and he pressured Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck multiple times. Actually, it was his third-quarter hit on Luck that persuaded Indianapolis coach Chuck Pagano to remove his from the game.
“He was just around the quarterback the whole games. He pushed the pocket and I think we saw some of his signature moves, where he’s elusive and hard to block.”
Spencer missed much of last season and training camp after having microfracture surgery. His increased activity against Indianapolis is a great sign for the Cowboys.
The Cowboys’ sack total has ranked near the bottom of the NFL all season. Defensive linemen Jeremy Mincey and Henry Melton are tied for the team lead with five sacks, but Spencer is the only player on the roster with a double-digit sack total in his career.
Spencer had 11 in 2012. He has only a half sack to his name this year, but like a lot of players on this team, Spencer seems to be playing his best football as the playoffs are about to begin.
In it we discuss:
- Playoff expectations
- The franchise tag and Dez Bryant
- To play or to rest
- The most underrated Cowboy
- Anthony Hitchens
Away we go:
Anthony Spencer. If Bryant pouts or sits out in some sort of protest, that's not going to help him. Is he not going to play football in 2015?
Orlando Scandrick might be underrated elsewhere but I know the Cowboys and fans understand how important he is. Hitchens has started at all three linebacker spots this season, which is an impressive feat for a rookie. I don't believe Doug Free gets his due around here. He would be a good choice. I believe James Hanna is another overlooked player. He has played a big part in the rushing success this year with his blocking. Nobody really talks about him. I will go the cop-out route and give it to Hitchens and Hanna and I know you guys will have other answers.
Sean Lee is coming back from knee surgery. The Cowboys would like to keep Rolando McClain. They could keep Justin Durant as well. At the very least Hitchens gives the Cowboys a solid backup at all three spots and considering the injury history of the three players mentioned, he would still see a ton of playing time.
Well, the Cowboys are 11-4 this season and have already clinched the NFC East title, in part because they’ve reduced the number of big plays they’ve allowed.
In 2013, they allowed 71 passes of 20 yards or more, which happened to be 20 more than the league average of 51. This season, the Cowboys have yielded only 51 plays of 20 yards or more.
“Big plays are certainly a point of emphasis for us, and coming out of last year it was, maybe, the most important emphasis for our defensive team,” Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said. “Making big plays and preventing big plays are the things that win and lose games each week. That and turnovers.”
The Cowboys are 3-0 in December, which has coincided with them giving up fewer big plays than usual. They allowed only two against Indianapolis last week and three the week before against Philadelphia.
Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli will take that every week.
The reduction in big plays is the biggest indication the Cowboys are playing Marinelli’s Tampa 2 defensive scheme much better than they did last season. The scheme is designed to keep the safeties deep so the defense doesn’t allow long gains.
It’s difficult for offenses to consistently have 10-play scoring drives because of their own mistakes or good plays from the defense. Examine virtually every scoring drive -- for and against the Cowboys this season -- and you’ll usually find a play of 20 yards or more within the drive.
The Cowboys made some subtle changes to their scheme under Marinelli during the offseason to make it even simpler, and they’re constantly moving players around to make sure they’re in the best possible position to take advantage of their skill set.
The Cowboys have also continued to churn their roster in a never-ending search for better players. Make the 53rd player better, and the team becomes just a little better.
Good tackling has also continued to be a point of emphasis, which is not easy to do with a limited number of padded practices each season. Still, the Cowboys work on tackling drills every day in practice.
“The best defenses tackle well in the run game and in the passing game,” Garrett said. “If it’s a 12-yard gain, then it's a 12-yard gain. You don’t want 12-yard gains becoming 60-yard touchdowns.”