Cowboys minimize the McClain risk

— -- IRVING, Texas -- Rolando McClain is everything the Dallas Cowboys want from a linebacker on game day. The other six days of the week, he drives folks at the club's Valley Ranch training facility crazy.

If not, the Cowboys would've been more than happy to sign McClain to a long-term deal given his performance last season.

Instead, the sides agreed Wednesday on a one-year deal that will pay him a base salary of $3 million, with playing-time incentives that would allow him to earn another $1 million.

McClain, acquired from Baltimore last July for a sixth-round pick, finished second on the team with 81 tackles and gave the Cowboys' defense a physical presence it hasn't had in years.

McClain is the kind of tackler who can inspire his teammates to raise their level of play with a single hit, and he made a litany of big plays that helped the Cowboys go 12-4 and win the NFC East, such as his juggling interception against Tennessee and his game-clinching interception against Seattle.

Off the field, he was a mess.

He missed practices and violated the NFL's substance abuse policy; if he does it again, he'll get a four-game suspension. More than a handful of folks at Valley Ranch would've raised a toast if he hadn't returned.

None of that should be considered surprising since the Ravens essentially gave away McClain, the eighth player taken in the 2010 draft.

He's already quit on Oakland and Baltimore, and his off-the-field behavior created trust issues for the Cowboys. Sure, the Cowboys wanted him back because he's a playmaker when he's focused and playing well, but they also wanted to protect themselves.

That's why they didn't give him a long-term deal or a signing bonus. McClain visited New England on Monday, which created a smidgen of leverage.

But there's a reason the Cowboys put $1 million worth of playing-time incentives in McClain's contract.

The NFL is too violent and too physical and too hard to give a dude big money when he has given a team reason to wonder how much he really wants to play. Now, consider what we know about coach Jason Garrett.

Practice is important to him. He wants players who love competing and going as hard as they can in practice each and every day, players such as Dez Bryant, Tyron Smith, Jason Witten and Orlando Scandrick.

The most important aspect for any player is availability. Players who aren't regularly available for any reason -- injury, suspension, etc. -- can't be trusted.

Why were so many folks OK with DeMarco Murray leaving for Philadelphia? It's because he missed 11 games in four seasons. Why don't folks get excited about linebacker Sean Lee anymore? It's because he's missed 34 games in five seasons.

McClain, who wore down toward the end of the season as knee and groin injuries took a toll on his body, had 10 tackles in a Week 15 win over Chicago, and 15 tackles in his last four games.

In the Cowboys' two playoff games, McClain played 29 of 141 snaps, leaving each game with concussion symptoms.

You could certainly argue that McClain will be considerably more durable this year because he has a full offseason to prepare his body and mind for the rigors of a 16-game season.

Then again, we have no idea if he wants to work hard enough to go through the offseason and get his body right. Talk to enough folks at Valley Ranch and they'll tell you McClain loves Sundays, but not the preparation that goes into the other six days.

Heck, McClain has admitted at various times that he questions how much he wants to play, which is why the Cowboys have protected themselves.

The Cowboys have signed free-agent middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley to a two-year deal that guarantees him $2 million; second-year linebacker Anthony Hitchens, a quality backup, is under contract for three more years.

That said, signing McClain is one more tangible indication the Cowboys believe they're capable of competing for the Super Bowl.

Their defense, which has been suspect for years, now has a playmaking defensive end in Greg Hardy, a pair of big-play linebackers in Lee and McClain, and a playmaker in Scandrick.

The questions about this team have never revolved around the Cowboys' offense. We know that Tony Romo, Bryant, Witten and the NFL's best offensive line are going to score points.

Finally, they have a defense on paper that has a chance to be elite. McClain will be a big part of it, if he avoids the off-the-field issues that have plagued him.