Numbers Worked Against Sam, Nothing More

Michael Sam during the Rams final preseason game against the Dolphins on Thursday.
Michael Sam during the Rams final preseason game against the Dolphins on Thursday.

Before we go any further in discussing Michael Sam’s release from the St. Louis Rams this afternoon, it’s important to note that he will play in the NFL this season. Count on it.

How could he not? He was the SEC co-defensive player of the year last season. The strongest, toughest conference in college football determined him to be one of its two best defensive players. One could make the argument that even though he won this honor, he slid to the seventh round of the draft because he’s something of a tweener in the NFL, perhaps a bit too small to be a traditional defensive end and not quite quick enough to play standing up at outside linebacker. But he dispelled any of that with his solid play during the preseason. He’s going to get himself a job, maybe even on the Rams practice squad if he clears waivers by noon tomorrow.

Unfortunately though, at least for now, the matter at hand is that after becoming the first openly gay player to be drafted into the NFL back in May, his next step on the historical ladder, becoming the first openly gay player to play in an NFL game, is on hold. But that doesn’t even remotely change the fact that Sam has made a massive impact on the sport and the league since the Rams picked him last spring. Nor does his release have anything to do with his sexual orientation.

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Sam wasn’t in an ideal spot with the Rams despite their proximity to where he played his college ball at the University of Missouri. He’s a defensive end and St. Louis is loaded at that spot. Starters Chris Long and Robert Quinn are stars. Other productive veterans are ahead of him on the depth chart. There were eight D-linemen on the depth chart before Sam was even drafted. Keeping him would have required the team to carry 10 defensive lineman, a big number for that position group. And it’s not just on the D-line where the Rams are deep either; his three fellow seventh-rounders from May’s draft, as well as the team’s sixth round pick, were all shown the door. Additionally, there were other spots in which the Rams were dealing with injuries suffered in the preseason, further adding to the numbers working against Sam.

Rams coach Jeff Fisher said at his press conference following the announcement of the team’s final cuts that he was “pulling for Mike,” while noting that his team’s defensive line is “the strength of our football team.” He lauded Sam’s performance, telling reporters, “Mike’s got the ability. Mike played well. He has the ability to play some place. He’s a much better player now than when he got here.”

There was little talk today of him being a “distraction,” that taboo word that coaches, GMs and other football types conveniently toss out there from time to time to describe any bumps in the road on their crazy, paranoid attempted paths toward what they hope constitutes world domination. And rightly so. Michael Sam is a good football player who was caught in a numbers game. That’s why he didn’t make the team.

Fisher said that “there’s no challenge with respect to Mike Sam. He’s not about drawing attention to himself. He kept his head down and worked and you can’t ask anything more out of any player.”

Good for Fisher. He may be on the overrated side when it comes to his coaching ability but he should be applauded for the way he’s handled everything that came along with Sam, football or otherwise, since drafting him.

It’s unfortunate that Fisher did indeed have to handle anything beyond football in Sam’s case (thanks, ESPN). But maybe now, moving forward, he and other coaches won’t have to. A few weeks ago, Arizona State offensive lineman Chip Sarafin came out, making him the first openly gay Division I college player. When Sam gets his shot (and again, that’s when, not if), whether it’s with the Rams via their practice squad or with another team, what he’s already accomplished will become further magnified and that will lead to even more doors being opened.

A lot of good football players were cut today and Michael Sam is one of them. But his story isn’t over yet. Football is why he didn’t make the St. Louis Rams this afternoon, just as it will be why he winds up succeeding and thriving as an NFL player sooner than later.