FRISCO, Texas – There's no possible way to avoid it. Even after a game where so much went wrong, it'd be hard to ignore one consistent narrative of Sunday's loss to Cleveland.
In the wake of an afternoon that saw the Cowboys surrender 307 rushing yards and 49 points, Jaylon Smith has become a lightning rod for the criticism that surrounds the team.
Fans and analysts alike have levied criticism at Smith after the loss, as social media platforms have been alight with breakdowns of his miscues against the Browns.
Cowboys defensive coordinator Mike Nolan isn't blind to it, and Monday he came to the defense of his embattled linebacker.
"You know, this is the honest truth: I don't know why Jaylon takes the criticism he does, because he's a good football player," Nolan said. "He plays extremely hard, I think he has improved."
The reasons for the criticism seem obvious. For starters, Smith is one of the highest-paid members of the Dallas defense. He signed a six-year, $68 million contract extension just last summer, and he is currently counting $8 million toward the Cowboys' salary cap.
And not only did the Cowboys struggle stopping the run on Sunday, Smith was also flagged for a costly facemask penalty on Austin Hooper. The error turned a 2nd-and-15 into an automatic first down, and the Browns would ultimately score to create a 14-14 tie just six plays later.
Nolan did allow that Smith has not been perfect, but he said the veteran linebacker has graded out well over the first four weeks of the season. The Cowboys' defensive coaches use three categories to assign those grades, and Nolan said Smith has avoided the worst one.
"As far as Jaylon goes – we grade guys a lot of times on 'losing effort,' 'winning effort' or 'just did your job.'" Nolan said. "Thus far, I can't say that he's had a game of the four that he's had a losing effort. I think all of his games have been either 'do your job' or a little better."
Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones was asked a similar question Tuesday morning on 105.3 FM The Fan, and he pointed out the ways in which Smith has had to adapt to a new defense – not to mention a position change because of Leighton Vander Esch's injury.
"I think Jaylon Smith has been courageous — I'll use that word right there — in his performance," Jones said. "He gives you everything that he's got. I think that when you think about how significant our change is on defense and you think about his role in quarterbacking it and making a lot of the calls and making a lot of the mental aspects that team needs to have done at his position out there, then you can give him reasons why that we're sitting here having this conversation."
It's fair to point out that there's plenty of blame to go around. It doesn't fall on one player when a defense is ranked 30th in total defense and dead last in yards allowed. Nor is Smith the only Dallas defender playing on a large contract.
Still, from the outside, the criticism will likely persist until the results get better. From the inside, the Cowboys remain confident in their player – and confident the results will improve.
"I think he's doing all the things we're asking of him, or at least trying to do," Nolan said. "And I believe he's going to keep getting better as the year goes along."
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