Sports Outside the Beltway

Greg Ellis Converts to LB, Earns McGinnest Comparison

Brad Sham recounts how Dallas Cowboy Greg Ellis has made the transition from defensive end to linebacker — and back to happy camper.

The Greg Ellis who went from June’s minicamp to the start of Oxnard’s late-July training camp was the antithesis of the Greg Ellis we all knew. That one was the ultimate team player, never complaining, just good-soldiering. Suddenly, convinced he was yesterday’s newspaper headed for the bottom of a birdcage, Ellis wanted to be traded. Flat-out told anyone who would listen he didn’t see how he fit in to the plans and sure wished they’d just let him go somewhere he could still make a contribution. Never mind Parcells and owner-general manager Jerry Jones said at every opportunity Ellis was a valued member of the defense and would have a major role and wasn’t going anywhere.

Well, here’s your story: On the verge of the regular season, Greg Ellis is back. I mean all the way back to happy. Not yet as confident as he was a couple of years ago, but getting there. And happy again, yes, Greg Ellis happy again.


Truth to tell, heading into his ninth NFL season, Ellis probably thought he had as much chance of becoming a rabbi as he did a linebacker. Even in June’s minicamp he was still a defensive end, although he recalls now that Parcells came to him last December and said, “I’ve figured out what I’m going to do with you.” He didn’t tell Ellis what that was, mind you, but the player knew to get ready for something.

Surprisingly, that something really didn’t come until, as Ellis recalls it, about the second day of training camp. “He told me, ‘Just start meeting with the linebackers,’” Ellis recalls. “And I do. That’s what I am now. Don’t go to any D-Line meetings. (Nose tackle Jason) Ferguson is all over me all the time. ‘You deserted us, man.’ But it’s what I am now.”

Early in camp, Parcells started occasionally calling Ellis by a foreign name to which he now responds: Willie, as in Cleveland linebacker Willie McGinest, his former New England star defensive end-turned linebacker Ellis reminds him of so much. The transformation had begun.


Now that he admits to being a linebacker, Ellis sounds a lot like that in recalling the day Parcells told him he thought he should switch. “As a player,” he recalls, “you want to do what the coach says is best for the team. But inside, you’re thinking, ‘Man, are you sure about this?’ But he said I reminded him of McGinest because we were both basketball players and good athletes and he was pretty sure I could do it.”

The fact that Ellis has made the conversion from end to linebacker in his ninth season is somewhere between impressive and amazing. The way he is now able to talk publicly about Parcells is startling, given the dialogue of spring.

“That Bill is something else,” Ellis says now, shaking his head. “He’s unique. He really knows his players. What he’s done with me is what I needed to be done. I was pessimistic. I thought I’d just be doing a lot of standing around. But he got me back into it again. He reeled me back into it, and I really appreciate it.”

As a Cowboys fan, I’m glad to see this in more ways than one. Ellis has been a superb player during a mostly down period for the Cowboys and has been dogged his entire career by the fact that the team passed up a chance at drafting Randy Moss when they took Ellis in the first round. He hasn’t been the superstar Moss has, to be sure, but he’s been a solid contributor on and off the field since arriving. And that’s being recognized:

Ellis has been designated, by the coach, the lone Cowboys captain for each of the first three preseason games. This is a gesture not lost on Ellis, who has prided himself on his leadership role on the Dallas defense for the last several years.

“You know that leadership is something I take seriously,” he says, “and it’s been challenging to be a leader, to feel like one, while I’m still learning. But it’s been a fairly quick process, and as I get a little more confident I’m starting to be a little more vocal again.

“But I was pretty surprised to be made the captain in Seattle. I mean, I’d only been trying this about seven days at the time, and we’re in the locker room before the game and he says, ‘OK, Captain will be 98.’ I mean, I’d have thought he’d be saying, ‘Well, he’s learning a new position, we don’t want to put too much extra responsibility on him.’ But he sees fit to make me the captain also. It was unexpected, but he’s making a statement. I hear him. I mean, you notice not only have I been the captain, I’ve been the only one. The other team has three, four guys. Every game the ref has looked at me and said, ‘Where’s everybody else?’ I have to tell him, ‘I’m it.’”

And so he is.

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