FRISCO, Texas – Everyone knew Jaylon Smith was going to play Sunday night against New York. That part wasn't a surprise.
Getting onto the field is one thing. The shocking part came as the game wore on, when Smith didn't leave. The Cowboys' original plan was to rotate the first-year linebacker with veteran Justin Durant, but by the time the dust settled, Smith had played 36 of the defense's 53 snaps – as opposed to Durant's two.
"There was going to be a rotation between Jaylon and Justin Durant, not based necessarily on series, but we anticipated Jaylon playing more in the base stuff, and some of the third-down packages that we had, Justin was going to play more in those," said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett. "It ended up that we played more of our base or our nickel stuff where Jaylon was involved in it and less of our three-down package that Justin was going to be more involved in."
To be fair, Smith did cede some playing time. He gave way to Durant on a couple of occasions, and he came off the field when the Cowboys played their dime package on third downs. But for a guy who only played a dozen snaps at a time in the preseason, it was still surprising to see him triple his workload – and make seven tackles and a forced fumble, to boot.
"He was handling the work really well," Garrett said. He was very active in the game. He was around the ball a lot. He was physical, forced the fumble, made a lot of tackles and just seemed to handle the work really well.
It's impossible to think about Smith without thinking about his long recovery, as he has battled back from a traumatic knee injury suffered on Jan. 1, 2016. It's still surreal to think that, for as much discussion as he has generated in the last year and a half, Sunday night was just Smith's third football game since college and his first appearance in the NFL's regular season.
Speaking about that on Tuesday morning, Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones once again credited Smith's commitment to that rehabilitation process. Jones said the Cowboys had reason for optimism about Smith's injury, and they had visual evidence on tape of his football acumen – but his attitude toward recovery made the difference.
"He had what I call that Michael Irvin rehab instinct," Jones said. "Michael Irvin will tell you that he thought he made his career in his rehab effort. He found out how bad he needed football, wanted to be a football player, and he rehabbed accordingly when he got hurt his second year with the Cowboys. With all of that in mind, that gave you a pretty inside track on being able to say Jaylon Smith is going to get here."
All of that said, it's still just one NFL game out of what will hopefully be many more. The real proof of Smith's progress will be the grind of the regular season, where the next game is always on the horizon.
But with one impressive performance in the books, Jones said he can only see Smith improving in the games to come.
"I think that he'll evolve into what we call really a third down player, as well, at the linebacker position," Jones said. "We initially thought of him as first and second down, which are more likely to see standard or more likely to see runs, if you will. I think he's got the kind of reaction skills, the natural read of a play that he's going to be like Sean Lee and be a great player in there on third down, which usually anticipates a pass."