The Michael Sam Experiment

(Updated below)

Michael Sam, who plays defensive end, is the first “openly gay” NFL prospect or player.

Sam did not however spring a surprise on his team after being either drafted, making a roster, or earning a starting spot. All of these would have forced the issue a little more strongly, and perhaps helped make it passe – as presumably one’s sexual orientation should be – more quickly.

Instead Sam declared before the draft – perhaps a little boldly in one sense since there was and after the fact is a legitimate chance that his declaration would and did hurt his draft status,

But by declaring before the draft rather than after making a team, he avoided the possibility of having any team that selected him feel like they were misled.

Sexual “orientation” has nothing to do with play on the field. But guys do share locker rooms, showers, etc. The topic is also a huge social issue – and thus a major media issue as well. And since everyone knows there are gay players in the NFL (just not who, nor should it matter) the fact that players have all chosen to keep it quiet is revealing.

And it is also interesting to see what happens with the first player who openly declares it – particularly when the declaration was made before they have even made a roster.

But, interesting or not, there has been a LOT of media coverage, and some criticism of that coverage. And some of it has been a little questionable. ESPN’s reporting that Sam did not shower with the team, for example (and for which ESPN later apologized), may have been a little over the top, for instance. And, as with many issues, there has been an overly narrow and near constant focus on the issue, to the exclusion of many other newsworthy stories; until the next story of the moment comes around.

Yet the Sam declaration, the ensuing spring draft, and his attempt to make an NFL roster is a story line nearly fit for a dramatic T.V. series; and thus t is going to be covered. While NFL teams, on the other hand, usually want to avoid media issues that don’t focus on football, particularly if they can be seen as distracting.

For that reason, an NFL team may have felt that if someone was going to come out right after being drafted or after making a team’s official roster, they could just as easily have given the team a heads up before the draft instead, so that the team – right or wrong to view it as an issue this way – could determine to what extent they want to deal with it.

Thus while it would have also been bold of Sam to wait until after (and if) he made a roster to make his declaration – again to really force the issue – it could also be seen as the more deferential move to his possible future team to to not use them to pull such a surprise, but give notice in advance.

Yet some of the criticism directed at Sam was focused on this fact that he did not “wait” until after being drafted and making a team. But had he done that, the criticism of Sam would have undoubtedly been even higher.

Both “criticisms,” are valid: Sam could have boldly made the implicit point that it should not matter, and so declare after a team chose him. Or respect the team’s interest in knowing of the possible media scrutiny (as well as his own interest in subsequently making the team or engendering good will), in advance. Which means neither criticism really, is valid, since there is probably no right and no wrong answer.

What’s interesting is that in some ways, in the ensuing draft, Sam went to just about one of the worst team’s he could have gone to. The St. Louis Rams.

He made it to the final 58 players of the Rams however. But with four former first round picks and plenty of additional solid players on their defensive line (including, as it turns out, a potential great rookie free agent find in Ethan Westbrook) that team may have been the worst for Sam to go to in this spring’s draft.

Apart from the fact that head coach Jeff Fisher is in some ways a think outside of the box head coach – who also doesn’t seem to care too much what other people think, and who has seemed pretty good at keeping his team and players in line and is thus perhaps less likely to worry about ancillary controversies – it was a surprise, and it made little sense that Sam was drafted by the Rams, of all teams.

Namely, given the fact that out of all 32 teams in the NFL, the team that drafted the first openly gay player, a defensive lineman, probably had the best all around and deepest defensive line in the football.

In other words, from a pure football perspective, it would have made more sense if the Rams had been the last team to draft Sam, not the first. Yet here’s a Bleacher Report article from draft weekend explaining why Sam is a perfect fit for the Rams.

I don’t, and didn’t agree with the article: The most important thing for any player, openly gay or not, is to first make the team. And Sam’s shot at a team that was so strong at D line was simply weaker in St. Louis than with many other teams. Still, the article makes some good points.

And the fact that Sam made the final 58 players on this team and yet didn’t get picked up by any other team is suggestive of something going on. But there has been criticism of this view, based on the idea that Sam played well against other 3rd and 4th stringers, and that he was a late 7th round draft pick to begin with.

Sam’s ability to make a club is limited by the fact that he is not versatile, and isn’t really a special teams players. However, he was also projected to go higher in the draft – around the 4th round apparently –  and was probably only a 7th round pick because of his pre-draft declaration. And in the preseason. the consensus is he played better than expected. But playing against other players also struggling to make teams is what making a team – some team, somewhere – is about. That is, being one of the players among the later round picks, who plays well against like competition.

If this is all accurate – and it is hard to say that it is with certainty – then a player that is projected to go in the 4th round, but goes in the 7th, but plays better than “projected,” ought to make a roster, or at least practice squad, somewhere.

Although it is also hard to say for certain, Sam may have even made the roster of a team with arguably the best overall defensive line in the NFL -the Rams – had the Rams not made a good find in free agent rookie pickup Ethan Westbrook, who reportedly beat him out for the final spot. That is, Sam still almost made it to the final roster of a team deep at the position.

Thus for him to not land on another team with a weaker defensive line, or at least another team’s practice squad over final cut down weekend (last weekend) is probably not just attributable to the commonly declared idea that he was “a 7th round pick playing against scrubs who just did not show he was good enough.”

More likely – as evidenced by the fact that no NFL team even drafted him until there were only 8 picks remaining in the entire 2014 draft (no. 249, where the Rams, who also had the 250th pick, chose Sam, out of 256 total) – no team thought it was worth the attention or issue. (Although this is by no means assured. Players projected to go in a certain round do wind up going a lot higher or lower frequently enough, albeit usually for “various reasons.” And the reason here may, or may not have been, Sam’s declaration.)

Buffalo Bills center Eric Wood apparently thought the declaration probably had something to do with it as well. And the ensuing media focus:

On Sunday, Wood tweeted  it was due to likely media hype – and in particularly ESPN hype (somewhat aggressively parodied – see second half of this clip – on the Daily Show several days ago) –  that Sam was not yet on a roster. That is, for a player who would not be a starter, teams probably wouldn’t want the constant attention. (Woods tweet was picked up by numerous sports sources, including at ProFootballTalk, as well as by the Huffington Post, in a fairly short, informative article.)

There is one team though that is more like a national T.V. show than any other, and it also happens to be nicknamed “America’s Team.” The Dallas Cowboys.

This team, as it happens, may also have one of the worst defensive lines, and worst defensive line depth in the NFL. Despite going 8-8 for the third straight season last year, they also gave up more yards than any other team in the NFL last season.

This team needs defensive help. And this team needs defensive line help – particularly with the loss of one of the more dominant pass rushers in the game over the past decade, DeMarcus Ware (who went to Denver, who at at a dominant 13-3 last year hardly needed help), and an apparent lack of depth at the position,

Thus several days after Saturday’s final NFL roster cuts, and after not one team in the NFL had claimed Sam for its roster or even it’s 10 additional player practice squad, “America’s team” signed the former Rams draft pick to its practice  squad.

The story, for now, continues.

Sam reportedly did not look as strong in practice as he did in games  for the Rams. But the interesting question still remains.  Will he wind up moving to the Cowboy’s regular roster, and get into an NFL game?

In week 3 of this season, Dallas Travels to St. Louis, to face the team with arguably the best D line in football, and the team that originally drafted Sam. The Rams.

Only 46 players of those on the active roster can even dress for a game. To be in uniform, Sam would have to crack the 53 man roster, and be selected to dress as one of the 46 as well. Perhaps in part simply because of the story, but undoubtedly also because of the Cowboy’s defensive line woes, this week NFL Total Access co-host Dan Hellie predicted we”ll more likely than not see Sam on the team for the game against the Rams September 21.

It would certainly make for yet another good story line.

Update: Once Sam joined the Cowboys’ practice squad, the story seemed to die down, and nearly fade completely once the regular season started shortly thereafter.

The fact that the Cowboys, who were expected to have one of the worst defenses in the NFL, have played very strongly – including on defense (even with once gain losing their excellent middle linebacker Sean Lee for the season) – probably also helped diminish attention on the issue further.

And on October 21st, the Cowboys released Sam from their practice squad.  Yet as reminded in an informative NYTs article, Rams head coach Fisher has stated he “believes Sam can play in this league.”

As does Sam, who has been allegedly been offered opportunity (and advice) to play in Canada, and understandably wants to try and make it in the NFL.

Once again, we’ll see what happens.

Aside from the seeming parody (one hopes it is parody) of the meaningless correlation between the Rams and Cowboys losing after Sam was no longer officially part of their roster, there are arguments from commentators that given his pass rushing skill set, Sam should probably be with a team or its practice squad somewhere in the NFL right now. (Particularly – if team’s believe it – if Sam’s sexual orientation is a “dead issue,” as Cowboy’s owner Jerry Jones sensibly declared recently.)

But at this point it’s really also just about a player, and whether or not he makes it in the NFL; with the effect of Sam’s declaration (which, after getting cut by the Cowboys, he has moderately questioned) perhaps speculation at this point, perhaps not.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s