Will McClay, the Dallas Cowboys assistant director of player personnel who has recently ascended to one of the top positions in the organization.
As the scope of McClay’s role has increased, so has the intrigue surrounding him. In short time, McClay has become the mythic figure of the Cowboys’ off-season.
On Internet message boards, some have expressed hope he can save a franchise that hasn’t qualified for the playoffs since 2009. Others are curious about a man who operates in the shadows of Valley Ranch and away from the blinding spotlight that follows the organization’s most prominent figures.
“Who is this Will McClay they’ve mentioned?” one poster asks in the title of a thread.
The curiosity continues to build. And adding to the mystery is the Dallas Cowboys decision to not grant an interview with McClay for this article.
They say he is a busy man, which he is. This week, he is leading the effort to assemble the final draft board, which has gone through many revisions in the months before the Cowboys go on the clock Thursday with the 16th overall pick.
In the war room, he will partner with Stephen and Jerry Jones as they make decisions that will affect the team for years to come. Those who know and have worked with McClay say he’ll be a fine consigliore, offering informed guidance that will steer the family-run business in the right direction.
“He’s going to provide Stephen and Mr. Jones with the very best information, the very best players, the very best evaluation, the very best research that he can possibly come up with,” said Terry Gray, a scouting consultant with the club.
“I think that anybody, whether it be Mr. Jones, Stephen or anybody in another corporation, is going to respond to that, to the very best that’s available to them. Will is an incredibly detail-oriented person. His work ethic is really unbelievable. And he is very, very intelligent. He is probably too smart for his own good sometimes.”
For that reason, no one is surprised McClay has emerged as one of the most prominent voices at Valley Ranch. But getting to this point in his career hasn’t been an easy journey, with stops at football outposts.
He did multiple tours in the Arena Football League — first as a player and then as a coach, bouncing between the Detroit Drive, the Milwaukee Mustangs, the Florida Bobcats, Anaheim Piranhas and the Grand Rapids Rampage before landing with the Dallas Desperados, the team once owned by the Jones family.
In between, he had a stint as the director of player personnel for the defunct XFL’s Orlando Rage and a gig in the scouting department with the Jacksonville Jaguars. When McClay joined the Dallas Cowboys organization in 2002, he was hired to be the defensive coordinator for the Desperados.
In 2004, the team promoted him to head coach, and he served in that capacity through 2008. All the while, he worked in the Cowboys’ personnel department, reviewing tape, compiling comprehensive reports and using advanced statistics to supplement his work.
Before he was elevated to his current role, he was the team’s director of football research, scouting opponents and keeping tabs on the other 31 rosters in the league in the event a player of interest became available.
The experience he gained evaluating and managing personnel have shaped McClay’s perspective as he has combed the fringes of the football landscape to unearth hidden gems. In recent seasons, McClay has been credited with finding key contributors whose careers appeared to have dead-ended before the Cowboys revived them. Among McClay’s best finds have been Laurent Robinson, Tony Fiammetta, Ernie Sims and George Selvie.
“It seems like every step of the way he’s done a good job for us,” said Stephen Jones, the team’s executive vice president. “I commend him for the job he did finding guys like Selvie and Nick Hayden and people like that, people that everybody had a shot at but he brought them in.”
Nose for talent
Throughout his life, McClay has always dug a little deeper and pushed a tad harder to achieve the best possible result.
At Marian Christian in Houston, where he was a wide receiver, defensive back and later a quarterback, he was an integral part of two Class 3A Texas Christian Interscholastic League championship teams. Back then, he voluntarily joined coaches as they reviewed reels of film spinning on a 16-millimeter projector.
“He would want to watch with us, said Mike Treybig, who was the defensive coordinator at Marian Christian from 1981-85. “He always was able to see things and was able to make suggestions to us as coaches about what we needed to do just to help the team out.”
The initiative McClay showed was evident beyond the football field, too. One day, he went from track to baseball practice, where he organized a players-only meeting because the team was struggling. Immediately thereafter, Marian Christian negotiated a turnaround and went on to claim the 1985 TCIL title.
Wherever McClay was, he seemed to leave his mark. In the most recent edition of Rice’s football media guide, the former defensive back is still listed among the school’s all-time leaders in interceptions.
“Will is one of those people you knew were going to be successful,” said Galen Hall, the former head coach of the Orlando Rage.
In a startup league that expired quickly, Hall and McClay worked together as they cobbled together a roster of players with the help of general manager Tom Veit. McClay was 33. Hall was 59. But despite the age difference, Hall quickly developed a deep respect for McClay as the Rage went on to win the Eastern Division — the first and only team to accomplish that feat in the doomed XFL.
“I think he could see hidden talent that some people will not look for,” Hall said. “He’s willing to look anywhere.”
‘He sees everything’
In scouting, no one is faulted for being too thorough. But McClay is known for doing more than due diligence to make sure his evaluation is as accurate as possible, spending hours studying players as they go through mundane repetitions. It’s during these marathon video sessions when Gray, who served as an assistant coach under McClay with the Desperados, marvels at how observant his friend is.
“You watch film with him and you’re looking at the same player and you are hearing him talk about things most people wouldn’t even really notice — ankle flexion, dips, those sort of things,” said Gray, who is the godfather to McClay’s son, Gabriel. “He’s got the eye.”
Added tight end Jason Witten, “It seems like he sees everything. He’s very detailed. I am a huge fan.”
The praise for McClay is widespread. But six years ago, the Cowboys’ Tom Ciskowski drew gushy compliments after he was appointed to a position similar to the one McClay holds.
“When it comes to evaluators of talent, he knows what you’re looking for. You give him a blueprint, he can follow it,” former NFL general manager Jeff Ireland said of Ciskowski back then.
But under Ciskowski’s watch, a disconnect between the coaches and scouts surfaced in the war room last year as the team deliberated about whether to take Florida defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd with the 18th overall pick. Floyd was ranked fifth on the draft board. The new defensive staff, however, didn’t consider him a good fit for the 4-3 scheme. The Dallas Cowboys passed on Floyd, executing a trade that netted two choices used to select center Travis Frederick and receiver Terrance Williams.
Since that episode, McClay has worked to bridge the divide inside Valley Ranch. It’s one of the top initiatives for a person who is in a position to effect change.
“I know it’s important to him and I know it’s something he’s going to continue to implement and bring together,” Gray said. “He’s got a thought, an idea, a process and a plan about integrating the coaches and the scouts together so that we’re all on the exact same page, so that we know exactly what the coaches are looking for and the coaches can get an idea of what the scouts are looking at as well. It’s a big thing.”
Those who know McClay have no doubt he will accomplish his mission along the way to doing all he can to help right the listing Dallas Cowboys. But if he does achieve that end goal, Valley Ranch’s man of mystery will do it with hard work, football savvy and — contrary to popular belief — zero magic.
IN THE KNOW
Will McClay | Assistant director of player personnel | Age: 47 | College: Rice
Work experience: 1993, Detroit Drive (AFL), secondary/special teams coach; 1995, Milwaukee Mustangs (AFL), defensive coordinator; 1996, Florida Bobcats (AFL), defensive coordinator; 1997, Anaheim Piranhas (AFL), defensive coordinator/director of player personnel; 1998-99, Grand Rapids Rampage (AFL), defensive coordinator/assistant head coach/director of player personnel; 2000-01, Orlando Rage (XFL), director of player personnel; 2001, Jacksonville Jaguars; assistant director of pro scouting; 2002-2003, Dallas Desperados, defensive coordinator; 2004-08, Dallas Desperados, head coach; 2002-present, Dallas Cowboys, pro scout/director of football research/assistant director of player personnel.
Playing experience: 1985-88, Rice, defensive back; 1989-1992, Detroit Drive, wide receiver/defensive back.
In the war room
Some of the key figures in the Dallas Cowboys organization expected to be inside the war room throughout the NFL draft this week:
Jerry Jones: Owner, president, general manager
Stephen Jones: Chief operating officer, executive vice president and director of player personnel
Todd Williams: Senior director of football administration/football operations
Will McClay: Assistant director of player personnel
Tom Ciskowski: Director of scouting
Chris Hall: College scouting coordinator
Jason Garrett: Head coach
Rod Marinelli: Defensive coordinator
Scott Linehan: Offensive coordinator
Jim Maurer: Head athletic trainer
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