FRISCO, Texas – Mike McCarthy's words proved to be quite prophetic.
The Cowboys' head coach said Thursday morning that he had never seen Tyron Smith smile as much as he has during this offseason program. And on Thursday afternoon, there Smith was, grinning from ear to ear.
"Honestly feeling great, finally got the neck fixed, and I think that kind of connected to everything with the back," Smith said. "I'm glad I finally got it fixed after all these years."
The relief has got to be palpable at this point. From herniated discs to stingers, Smith has been plagued by various injuries since 2016. It all came to a head in 2020 when the aforementioned neck injury prompted a much-needed surgery, which wound up costing him 14 games.
"It just was about being smart about it, and if I want to keep playing longer then I'd have to get the surgery," he said. "And I do want to keep playing as long as I can. So it was a good thing to get the surgery done, so I don't have to worry about that anymore."
Smith's absence, along with the loss of La'el Collins to a hip injury, became one of the lasting images of 2020 – a team that was too injured to compete, as far too many crucial starters were forced into the training room.
At this point in his career, Smith isn't a stranger to injury. He lost 12 games to various injuries between 2016-19. But at the same time, he was always able to fight his way back into the lineup. Playing his last game on Oct. 4 and not returning to action was a different experience entirely, and it's something Smith doesn't want to go through again.
"It drove me crazy, because I couldn't be out there with my teammates, helping out," he said. "And I couldn't really be in the building as much as I wanted to, because of my neck."
The surgery kept Smith off his feet for roughly a month, to the point that he was overjoyed to be given the go-ahead to simply ride a bike. From there, it's been a steady climb back toward playing shape – and he certainly seems to be there.
"I mean my strength is back – or probably better than it was, since I've just been sitting here working out," he said.
That doesn't mean Smith is diving into the deep end just yet. He and Collins are gradually working their way back, refraining from participating in any of the more physical aspect of these OTA practices. The goal is to have them ready and healthy when the pads go on later this summer.
It's totally understandable. The questions about Smith have never been about ability. For the last eight years, he's been arguably the best left tackle in football when playing with a clean bill of health.
The obvious problem is that a clean bill of health has been hard to come by for the seven-time Pro Bowler. One of the dominant storylines of the offseason was whether or not the Cowboys would spend a big draft pick on an offensive tackle, largely because of Smith's absence over the years.
Smith has never been much for talking, but he'll have his chance to answer those questions. Asked about his goals for the future, he kept it pretty straightforward. Even if the conversation about him has changed, his approach hasn't.
"For me – I always say this every year, but it's true. I'm still not at the point where I want to be," he said. "Every year it's like I'm still trying to prove to everybody that I can still play and still be the best at my job. For me, it's always that mindset. There's always something to prove."