You would think Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith would be easy to root for.
The hard work and determination that Smith showed in rebounding from a tragic knee injury in his final game at Notre Dame in 2016, when many thought he would never play again — let alone become a Pro Bowl player in the NFL — should have provided him carte blanche with Cowboys fans who love a good comeback story.
Yet, six years after spending his rookie season battling drop foot and serving a redshirt year, Smith is as healthy as ever and arguably still is the most star-crossed player on the Cowboys.
Although he has led the team in tackles the past two seasons, Smith is a lightning rod for criticism when it comes to his role in the disappointing play of the Cowboys defense, his massive contract, his untimely post-tackle celebrations as well his seemingly canned quotes during media interviews.
Asked if the sometimes unfair criticism bothered him during his first media session of training camp, Smith offered up a doozy by comparing himself to the two of the greatest players in NBA history.
“I mean, I don’t care who you are, you’re going to have criticism,” Smith said. “Michael Jordan had criticism. LeBron James, some of the best players in the world have criticism. That’s just a part of the game. But you gotta control what you can control. And for me it’s just focused on my development and becoming a better player.”
Jordan, James and Smith.
Sure, why not?
Smith didn’t endure himself to the Cowboys in the offseason when he made the switch from No. 54 to No. 9. Yes, the new NFL rules allow him to wear the number he wore in high school in college, but among the Cowboys fan base that digit still belongs to beloved quarterback Tony Romo.
Smith remains unfazed by the criticism just as he was to the doubts about his playing career when he alone believed he could overcome that shattered knee and nerve damage injury he sustained in 2016.
“Regardless, none of that matters. It’s about winning. And for me, that’s what I’m focused on,” Smith said. “I have been through it all and I always come out on top. ... I’m a guy that’s going to work and that’s really just what I’m focused on.”
With all that being said, Smith acknowledges heading into the 2021 season with a chip on shoulder.
His role in the starting lineup at middle linebacker is being challenged by rookie first-round pick Micah Parsons.
Add in the presence of Leighton Vander Esch and Keanu Neal and the Cowboys are deeper and more talented than they have been at the position in a while.
The team plans to use all of them in concert but Parsons will likely be the centerpiece. Smith could play on the edge if he is not the middle.
Snaps will be at a premium.
“I think he has done a great job,” coach Mike McCarthy said of Smith. “Not only with Micah but the other guys. Jaylon is all football. I have enjoyed working with him. We got a ton of competition at the linebacker position. Micah has stood out.
The competition is real. We are working on different packages. We want to make sure we can utilize all those guys as best we can.”
How Smith, who is the fifth-highest paid player on the Cowboys with a base salary of $7.2 million in 2021, responds will go a long way toward determining his future.
His cap hit increases to $11.8 million in 2022.
“Always got something to prove. Always got something to prove,” Smith said. “People thought I’d never play the game again and I’m here. Really, it’s about reaching my maximum potential. That’s what I’m focused on. Just doing whatever it takes to help the team win.”
Ultimately, the latter is what’s most important. He is on board with playing whatever role coordinator Dan Quinn deems necessary to improve a Cowboys defense that gave up the most points in the history of the franchise in 2020 and the second-most yards ever.
As the second-longest tenured player on the defense behind end DeMarcus Lawrence, he is being counted on to fill the leadership void vacated by the departures of Sean Lee and Tyrone Crawford.
His unit has to hold up its end of the bargain and he has to set the right tone with his attitude and play.
Regarding that, his response was perfect.
“We can’t be the problem as to why this team doesn’t succeed and we know that and we’re working towards that,” Smith said. “It’s just about working every day and that’s kind of what we’re focused on, we’re together as a team, as a unit and that’s what matters.”