Randy Gregory's rocky path: From 54 games missed to a leader on the Dallas Cowboys players' council

FRISCO, Texas -- It was the last full practice of the Dallas Cowboys' training camp in Oxnard, California and defensive end Randy Gregory could sense something was off.

He called the workout, "sluggish," and "slow," especially from the defense's point of view, and retrospectively he felt like he should have said something.

"I should, but I wasn't in the best mood in practice and didn't get a lot of reps," said Gregory, who had been dealing with a sore foot.

"It was probably selfish of me, but I felt like the energy -- they were feeding off my energy," he said. "And I know that's probably not the case, but I think that just speaks to my role as being on the leadership council. I should speak up and at least let our defense know we need to do a little bit better."

Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy, with input from his staff and other parts of the organization, named Gregory this offseason to the Cowboys players' council, a leadership committee of 14 players whom the coaches rely on to get a feel for the team's needs and wishes.

That Gregory is being asked to take on that role is surprising, considering his history since being drafted No. 60 overall by the Cowboys in 2015:

  • He was suspended for 14 games in 2016 for violations of the NFL's substance abuse policy.

  • He was suspended the entire 2017 season, two games in 2018 and the entire 2019 season for multiple violations.

  • He was suspended the first six games of 2020.

Being tasked with this role to take on more leadership is necessary for Gregory's personal and professional development. The Cowboys are counting on him -- on and off the field -- in a way few thought would be possible.

"We all have history," McCarthy said. "So you have a starting point and based on our starting point to where he is today, he's made a huge leap. But I really think it's just the beginning. Randy's one of those types of players and types of talents."

A year ago, McCarthy barely knew Gregory. The defensive end was surprised as anybody to earn a spot on the committee.

"I wasn't really expecting that. It says a lot about my journey as far as my growth," Gregory said. "Five years ago this would never even be a conversation. I didn't have any sort of leadership skills. Even right now, I'm still working on those things."

On numerous occasions during the offseason, McCarthy mentioned the team's leadership lost in the retirements of linebacker Sean Lee, defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford and the team moving on from long-snapper L.P. Ladouceur. Those three players combined for 36 years of NFL experience.

Gregory, 28, is caught between two stations in his playing career.

He is the second-longest tenured defensive player on the Cowboys' roster, which gives him some pull. But he has missed a possible 54 games, which makes him feel like he has to earn his way. He has 10.5 sacks in 38 games played and has started only one.

"I've never been the biggest follower, but I've never considered myself a leader," Gregory said. "And, so, now stepping into that role, I'm just trying to find my best way to lead."

Gregory says he's working on being more vocal around his teammates. He has become more outgoing on the field, even if that still needs more work based on being too quiet in that last full practice in Oxnard.

"Next is obviously putting a good product on the field, making sure I know what I need to do so I actually look like a leader and act like a leader," he said.

First training camp since 2015

When the Cowboys drafted Gregory out of Nebraska in 2015, they gave him the No. 94 jersey, hoping he could evolve into the type of pass-rushing threat that Pro Football Hall of Famer Charles Haley and future Hall of Famer DeMarcus Ware did while donning that number. The cache of the number does not have the same franchise reverence as say the No. 88, worn by wide receivers Drew Pearson, Michael Irvin, Dez Bryant and CeeDee Lamb, but it is pretty close.

"It's just a reflection of how we feel about Randy Gregory," McCarthy said.

Gregory has worked with teammate Jaylon Smith on different hand-fighting moves to help his pass rush. He has made his way inside the offense's huddle, joking with the linemen and getting playfully pushed aside.

"He's definitely more excited, more comfortable," Cowboys wide receiver Michael Gallup said. "I've always talked to Randy a lot; he's a good dude. But this year, yeah. I definitely think he's been a little bit more vocal coming off the sideline, even just talking to a lot of offensive players in general. I've seen it, he's excited to play this year. I really think that's a big up for us."

Gregory's raw talent is why the Cowboys never released him despite so many missed games. Dallas owner and general manager Jerry Jones has a long history of taking chances on troubled players. The Cowboys have experimented in the past with great success (Haley), a modicum of success (Adam "Pacman" Jones) and no success (Greg Hardy).

Just being on the practice field during training camp is an accomplishment. This is his first camp since 2015, and he has quickly learned what he had missed.

"Being around the guys and sitting around and playing games and stuff," Gregory said. " ... Being able to sit down with the coaches and really getting down to the playbook and just dedicate all of our time to football, just kinda X-ing all of that other stuff out of our lives and really focusing in."

Gregory is in a far different place in his return to summer football than earlier in his career. Then, he was a younger player filled with untapped potential.

"You have to be comfortable with yourself, confident in yourself," Gregory said. "There were times in the past I was a very anxious individual. I was a guy that had low self-esteem and I didn't do very well in situations like this, or situations like where I had to bring out my leadership skills and really be confident in myself. Being confident on the field and off the field, it kind of goes hand in hand. When I'm doing well on one hand, I think I'll do well in the other."

Key to Cowboys' success on defense

Gregory will be an unrestricted free agent after this season. Upon his return last year, the Cowboys signed him to a one-year extension, including a $200,000 signing bonus. His talent will lead to another contract, either from the Cowboys or another team, if he can put together this season what so many expected from him as a second-round pick.

"Just to be able to see him grow mentally and physically, it's like watching [Milwaukee Bucks'] Giannis Antetokounmpo grow," said Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, who, as a second-round pick in 2014, is the longest-tenured defensive player. "Going through those phases, but just to see him also taking care of his off-the-field issues and being more in sync to what he wants out here, it's a blessing, and I know being able to have him back and me back, it'll complement me so well."

Gregory had 3.5 sacks in 10 games last season. He wondered why he did not play more under former Cowboys coordinator Mike Nolan. His teammates wondered, too.

"Guys cleave to special players. He's a special player on the field. He makes plays," Cowboys wide receiver Amari Cooper said. "What he [did] last year is amazing to me. And I never verbalized that to him, but it's like he hadn't played in what, a year and a half? How long was it, do you guys know? And then he just came back dominating ... on limited snaps, too. It was pretty amazing.

"And he's not the most talkative guy, like myself, but when you play that well and go about your business, guys just kind of look at you and you're venerated for sure."

In training camp practices, Gregory has given the Cowboys' offense trouble. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn raves about his ability to "bend" in gaining the edge on the offensive tackle. McCarthy joked with offensive coordinator Kellen Moore he would never have called two reverses to Gregory's side after he stopped both for big losses.

Gregory is such an important figure to the success of the defense in 2021 he was held out of the Hall of Fame Game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Aug. 5. He was sent home to Dallas before the second preseason game against the Arizona Cardinals because of a foot injury that is not considered serious enough to jeopardize his availability for the Cowboys' Sept. 9 opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Gregory was asked if he ever doubted he would get to this point in his career.

"Everyone has their doubts here and there," he said.

But what about him?

"I didn't have doubts," Gregory said, while acknowledging what remains to be done. "Look, I still have a lot to prove. There is a lot of talk going around right now. I really believe I am having a good offseason, but there is still a lot to prove on the field. I don't want to sit here and say, 'Did you ever doubt you would be here?' I still feel like I haven't truly arrived.

"With that said, I still want to give myself a pat on the back. I really feel I deserve it. I have worked hard to get to this point. From this point on, I have to put some good play on the field and stay out of trouble, which I am trying to do."

McCarthy gave him the ultimate pat on the back.

"The sky's the limit for Randy Gregory," he said.