Michael Sam was cut today by the St. Louis Rams, the team announced, a victim of the numbers game and not homophobia.
Sam, the seventh-round draft choice by the Rams, was seeking to become the first openly gay player to make an NFL regular season roster. He still can get that chance, but it's unlikely to be with the Rams.
"I will tell you this: I was pulling for Mike, I really was," Rams Coach Jeff Fisher said Saturday in a news conference. "And I don't say that very often. Mike came in here and did everything we asked him to do. ... It was a football decision, and the decision is no different than any other decision that we make. It was a football decision. It was a football decision back in may to draft Mike."
Sam issued a statement after hearing the news: "I want to thank the entire Rams organization and the city of St. Louis for giving me this tremendous opportunity and allowing me to show I can play at this level. I look forward to continuing to build on the progress I made here toward a long and successful career. The most worthwhile things in life rarely come easy, this is a lesson I've always known. The journey continues."
The next 24 hours will determine Sam's immediate NFL fate. The other 31 NFL teams can put in a claim for his services and Sam would go to the team that claimed him first. If Sam is unclaimed, there is a strong chance he will be signed as one of 10 practice squad players by the Rams.
If that happens, Sam can practice with the Rams but not play in a game. For that to happen, he will have to be placed on the active 53-man roster, something that can occur, for example, with injuries to other players. Practice squad players earn a minimum $6,300 per week they are on the team. This amounts to $107,100 if he lasts all 17 regular season weeks on the squad. Had Sam made the Rams roster, he would have earned $420,000 this season. He gets to keep the $45,000 signing bonus he was given after the draft.
The defensive end always had an uphill battle making the team since the Rams' strength is along the defensive front. Going into training camp, the first eight slots on the line were all but set, leaving one spot. Sam lost out to undrafted rookie Ethan Westbrooks, who by various reports had a better overall camp and can also play tackle in addition to end.
Sam played quite well this preseason, in many ways better than the Rams would have predicted given where he was drafted, in part because he lost 13 pounds prior to camp and was quicker. He had 10.5 tackles and three sacks in the preseason, including two sacks of Johnny Manziel. In the preseason finale at Miami, Sam led the team with 5.5 tackles. But he lost out to Westbrooks, who rated higher than him in practice and games, according to most analysts, though Sam closed the gap in the final two preseason games.
We believe Sam was cut for purely football reasons and there is zero evidence that it had anything to do with him being gay. The Rams organization, from General Manager Les Snead to Fisher to the players, treated Sam as just another player, even though they were aware of his historic nature. Snead and Fisher even attended the ESPYs in Los Angeles in July, where Sam received the Arthur Ashe Award for courage. Fisher made a point at his news conference announcing the cuts that Sam was not a distraction.
"There was no distraction," Fisher said. "If someone perceived or thought there may be a distraction-they weren't in the building. We've said that all along. This was a football decision. Mike fit in very, very well. He was fun to be around. He was a good teammate. There was no issue there. Again, as I said earlier, I was pulling for him and it didn't work out. It just didn't work out."
Of the NFL's 32 teams, 17 use a base 4-3 defense (which Sam fits best), which means four defensive linemen and three linebackers. Two of the linemen in a 4-3 are ends, which is Sam's position. Now that he is available to the other 31 teams, it will be interesting to see if any of the 4-3 teams in need of a pass rusher picks him up. If not, as we wrote Monday, homophobia will be a key reason. Sam has shown he can play in the league and rush the passer, so if the teams needing pass rushing help pass on him, that would be discouraging and a step back.
"I'm very confident that I'll be playing on a NFL roster this fall," Sam said after the Miami game. "I made some big plays and I think -- I know -- I can play in this league." We hope he gets the chance.