Michael Sam Signs with The Dallas Cowboys Practice Squad – Why It Happened and Why It Matters

September 03, 2014 / by / 45 Comments

As of this morning, Michael Sam – the first openly gay football player drafted into the NFL – signed with the Dallas Cowboyspractice squad. After being picked in the 7th round by the St. Louis Rams, Sam recorded 11 tackles and three sacks in his preseason appearances. However, the former SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year was dropped from the Rams’ roster in their final round of cuts, thanks in large part to the Rams having an exceptionally deep defensive core.

After clearing waivers, Sam hoped to be signed by another team. Chances looked slim though, as owners admitted reticence due to the intense spotlight that would come with signing Sam. That changed this morning, when the Dallas Cowboys – a franchise known to bask in glow of the media’s spotlight (and their enormous midfield screen) – signed Sam to its practice squad, giving the young star a chance at achieving his NFL dreams.

With the “will-he, won’t-he” debate over Michael Sam getting a shot at another NFL roster temporarily put to rest, we here at National Ave thought it would be useful to give a little information on the Cowboys’ motivation for signing Sam and the implications it has for Sam, the Cowboys and the rest of the NFL.

Why It Happened

He’s a Talented Player

Let’s put all the discussions of Sam’s bravery and the social implications of it on pause for a second to address a simple fact: Michael Sam is a football talent. Whether you see him as a locker room distraction (for whatever dumb reason) or think he’s the next incarnation of Jackie Robinson, there’s no denying he’s got some real on-field abilities. In you don’t believe this, just watch his sack of fellow NFL “distraction” Johnny Football (below).

Credit: NFL Preseason Live

via NFL Preseason Live

Sam has the power and speed to explode off the ball within milliseconds of the snap, and follows that up with enough agility and quickness to get to the ball-carrier before he even knows what hit him. Yes, he’s not an All-Pro caliber talent like Jadeveon Clowney. However, he does have the skillset, strength, and passion to become a solid situational pass rusher. Given proper coaching and continued effort to improve his game, Sam could become a dependable defensive end for the Cowboys (or any other team) in years to come.

There’s Nothing to Lose

The Dallas Cowboys are fresh off a season plagued by some of the worst defensive play the franchise has seen in years. In fact, there was some talk that Dallas’ defense – which ranked last in total defense (allowing 418.6 yards per game), and broke franchise records for most passing yards allowed (4,360) and total yards allowed (6,279) – was the worst that the NFL had ever seen. Ever. Ever is a very long time.

So what do you do when you’re at rock bottom? Well unless you’re the Miami Marlins (and if you are, I’m sorry) – you probably don’t sit and wait for more punishing losses. No, you go out and look for ways to improve. The Dallas Cowboys did that this offseason when they signed defensive tackle Terrence McClain in free agency, and selected Boise State defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence in the second round of the NFL draft.

Unfortunately for the Cowboys, things haven’t gone quite as planned – as both McClain and Lawrence have suffered injuries in the preseason that will leave them off the field for part of the regular season (McClain will be sidelined for week one, while Lawrence will likely miss the first half of his rookie campaign). They’ve added defensive end Jack Crawford to help shore up the void left by Lawrence – but their front defensive core is still extremely shallow. Enter Michael Sam.

Adding Michael Sam to their practice squad allows the Cowboys to monitor and aid the progression of a talented player who could serve as a major help in a woefully weak slot on their roster. And with a salary of $6,300 a week (the designated salary for a practice squad player) – it’s not like Sam is breaking the bank for a franchise valued at a league-high 3.2 billion dollars.

For a team with high hopes but few concrete prospects to cling to, signing Sam is an easy football decision. Plus, it comes with some serious media-friendly upside.

Positive Publicity

For a franchise branded as “America’s Team,” the Dallas Cowboys are not so popular. In fact, a recent CBS poll revealed that the Cowboys are actually the most hated team in the NFL, with 23% of voters saying they dislike the Cowboys most out of all 32 teams.

Michael Sam, on the other hand, might be the most popular man in the NFL right now. A humble, hard-working professional simply trying to make his dreams come true, Sam has shied from drawing any unnecessary attention to his sexual preference while simultaneously (if unwittingly) making himself the poster child for gay athletes.  He has become a symbol for change and hope, while making sure to never come across as holier-than-thou when confronted with questions about his history-making pursuit.

Thanks to his symbolic status and his kind-hearted nature, Sam has won fans over by the tons – with his jersey ranking second in sales immediately following the NFL draft (behind only Johnny Manziel), and sixth overall in the first quarter of sales, ranking above perennial Pro Bowlers Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers.

The decision-makers in the Cowboys front office are undoubtedly aware of this popularity. A franchise that thrives on superstars, the Cowboys are likely hoping (and expecting) for those sales numbers to continue as Sam dons the blue and white (even though his status on the practice squad means he doesn’t have an official number yet).

This does not invalidate any of the football motivations behind Sam’s signing. When push comes to shove, the Cowboys would probably not waste one hundred thousand dollars a year as a pandering jersey tease. However, if they’re able to pull in a hundred thousand dollars or so in jersey sales while potentially building a future starter – well I’m sure Jerry Jones wouldn’t object.

Why It Matters

NFL Potential

Joining an NFL practice squad is not a glamorous job. You work as hard as everyone else, you dedicate your life to the sport – but there’s no guarantee you’ll ever play in a regular season game.

Some practice squad players simply never make the cut. They work and they toil until they’re eventually released and picked up by another practice squad, or are forced to quit altogether. However, some practice squad players do improve and get signed to 53-man rosters. They earn their spot, get their own jerseys, and finally feel the rush of suiting up for the Sunday game. Sam hopes to be one of those players.

It’s not impossible either. There are several Pro Bowl players who have worked their way from practice squad status to make names for themselves, including former quarterback Kurt Warner, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison, Arian Foster, and Sam’s new teammate – Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo.

If Sam can show his potential to the Cowboys’ coaching staff and/or their defense flounders the same way it did in 2013, the promising defensive end may just get a chance to try to measure up to the legacy of those former practice squad players. And if Sam manages to achieve a fraction of what some of those guys accomplish, he may very well begin a shift in the sociopolitical in the NFL that come echo for decades to come.

Making History

By getting signed to the Dallas Cowboys practice squad, Michael Sam moved one step closer to becoming the first openly gay NFL player to play in a regular season game. Yes, he is already the first openly gay NFL player, but it will feel like a hollow victory if Sam never makes it onto the field and shows he’s more than just a symbol.

Unfortunately, a lot of the significance of Sam’s courageous decision will be lost on the NFL if he cannot prove that he’s a quality player. When questions arise about Sam’s sexuality impacting his NFL chances, most players and coaches give a similar answer: It won’t matter, as long as he can play (though validity of that claim is debated). If Sam is able to make it onto the Cowboys’ (or another team’s) 53-man roster and start making plays, his sexuality won’t stop being a story, but it will stop being the story. The league will eventually have to accept that times are changing, and if they want to have the strongest teams they can – they’ll have to get past the institutionalized prejudice that have kept prospective gay football players from pursuing their dreams, and have left current gay NFL players (yes, there are others) marginalized and afraid.

Prior to being drafted by the St. Louis Rams, Michael Sam made a request to the media at the NFL Draft Combine: “”I just wish you guys would see me as Michael Sam the football player, instead of Michael Sam the gay football player.” This is the fundamental change that will need to happen in the NFL for gay players to be treated equal. Players like Sam need to be seen as NFL players who also happen to (inconsequentially) be gay, instead of “gay NFL players.” Sam’s signing to the Dallas Cowboys’ practice squad helps make that a possibility. Him playing in a regular season game could help make it a reality.