Perhaps you’ve heard that the St. Louis Rams parted ways with rookie lineman Michael Sam over the weekend. The seventh-round draft choice has yet to be added to a practice squad or a 53-man roster, which isn’t too unusual for a player at the back of a draft. But given his preseason production and the circumstances that pushed him deep into the draft to begin with, Sam deserves a better fate, and a spot on someone’s roster.
Being a pioneer for civil rights was always going to be a monumental task for Sam. The NFL’s empire was built on repackaging reckless, excessive violence as highlights for a modern-day audience in search of Roman gladiators. It sells the idea of hetero-normative manliness as the great American pursuit; ad space during league broadcasts is typically filled with the objects that men are “supposed” to desire, namely beer and scantily-clad women.
I can’t comment on Sam’s alcoholic beverage preferences — here’s hoping he’s more of an IPA guy — but coming out as a gay man in the public sphere has had an impact on his playing career. The morning after his announcement in February, Sam fell 70 spots in CBS’ pre-Combine rankings, before the underwhelming performance that was used to justify his slide in the scouting community. Post-Combine slides are often nonsense enough, but watching it happen to the SEC Defensive Player of The Year with no meaningful changes in his body of work was troubling. Scouts were plenty aware of the size concerns when they labeled him a potential third-rounder weeks prior.
Anonymous team sources were quick to lay out excuses for teams to cut him in advance, some more legitimate than others. Plenty of players have overcome questions of size to have productive careers, but Sam’s physique combined with a relative lack of versatility makes him a tough sell for many teams. College stardom certainly doesn’t dictate future success, and it’s quite possible he would fail if given the chance. The Rams in particular have reasons not to keep him around — their defensive front is among the league’s strongest, making a pass-rush specialist like Sam expendable.
Yet every time he has been given the opportunity, Sam has stepped up to the challenge. There were questions of whether he would be able to assimilate in an NFL locker room, a point of discussion that carries extra weight in the fallout of last season’s Richie Incognito scandal. That potential issue was squashed by teammates and Rams officials at every turn, perhaps best summed up by lineman Chris Long following an ESPN report about Sam’s showering habits.
Dear ESPN, Everyone but you is over it.
— Chris Long (@JOEL9ONE) August 26, 2014
There were questions about the level of competition that Sam faced at both the collegiate and professional level. Speaking on his climatic final season at Mizzou, a team executive stressed to Sports Illustrated that Sam’s production was derived mostly from poor competition:
Of his 11.5 sacks, nine came in three games against what one scout called ‘garbage competition’ — Vanderbilt, Arkansas State and Florida. ‘His numbers are inflated,’ a scout said. ‘You’ve got to see through that.’
This has extended to critique on his preseason with the Rams, where Sam led the team in sacks (with three) and finished tied for third in combined tackles (with 11). Independent of context, it’s easy to shrug those away as empty numbers. A closer look suggests otherwise; since 2010, these are the only players that have registered three or more sacks in a single preseason for St. Louis, per NFL.com’s stats database:
- Michael Sam, 2014
- Robert Quinn, 2012
That puts Sam in the company of a former first-round pick and ESPN’s sixth-highest rated defensive player, but still the issue of competition exists. Going further, a combing through Rams preseason stats reveals that 24 players in the same time frame registered at least 11 combined tackles.
Of those 24, just two never suited up for the Rams in a regular season game, one of whom (UTEP’s Darren Woodard) remained on the team’s practice squad throughout last season. The vast majority of these men were at positions like safety and linebacker that traditionally rack up more tackles, which makes Sam’s appearance on the list especially noteworthy. Former Clemson safety Rashard Hall is the only player that did not receive a shot on either the active roster or the PS.
These are admittedly specific criteria in a sample size that’s far from scientific, but it illustrates that Sam has performed as well or better than players that have been given shots to make an impact on Sundays. The refrain has been that if Sam could play he would make it in the NFL, but thus far it doesn’t appear that he is on a level playing field. Considering the dreck that populates many practice squads, it’s hard to believe that Sam isn’t of value to someone in pure football terms. Teams employ specialists of all kinds these days, and in an era where getting after the quarterback is especially important, his specialty should be more valuable, not less.
My hope is that Michael Sam receives a shot to play for someone, whether that means he’s busting his tail on a practice squad or fighting for time on the game day roster. His on-field performance has warranted that chance. My fear is that his desire to own his identity and be honest with peers will hinder that dream, perpetuating an ideology that reflects poorly on the NFL as a whole.