FRISCO, Texas – If you are highly confused as to why the Cowboys would release veteran linebacker Jaylon Smith four games into the 2021 season, with the Cowboys 3-1 and heading into Sunday's game against the New York Football Giants, please listen to what head coach Mike McCarthy had to say when he pointed out there were "multiple reasons" for the move catching many off guard.
"This is about progress and a little more clarity of defensive packages and personnel groups and how we want to play," McCarthy said with a certain amount of political correctness.
Then this: "But we have a defensive system. I think it's clear now after four games how we're playing."
In other words, Smith no longer fits into the Cowboys' "big picture" on the defensive side of the ball. And let me help with those multiple factors while reading between the lines.
First, you don't cut a guy knowing Smith's release will stuff $6.8 million of unaccounted prorated dead money into the 2022 salary cap unless you are thoroughly disappointed in his play. The Cowboys gave Smith a chance to shine in this past game when breaking out in a 3-4 defense on the second possession of the game, with Smith and Leighton Vander Esch playing in the middle. Smith only played 28 of 69 snaps, and for good reason. He had little impact.
Then there is this: The Cowboys approached Smith about a contract restructure, knowing he had a $9.2 million base salary for 2022 that was guaranteed against injury on the fifth day of the league year. First, that's too much base salary if he is not the starter, and at this point of the season, Smith would clock in at LB4. And the last thing the Cowboys need is for Smith to have an injury, potential surgery that he would be rehabbing into the 2022 offseason, as he had this year with the wrist surgery, causing his base salary to become guaranteed.
Smith evidently rejected the restructure, disappointing the Cowboys, knowing they will once again be up against the salary cap next year and be hard-pressed to attempt to re-sign the likes of Vander Esch, Randy Gregory, Michael Gallup and a couple of the veterans they signed to one-year deals for this season.
Then there is the roster. You only get 53 guys. With the release of Smith, along with Keanu Neal and Bradlees Anae coming off Reserve/COVID-19, they are at 52. But in the very near future, there will be a need to activate guys off reserve lists, like La'el Collins, DeMarcus Lawrence, Neville Gallimore, Kelvin Joseph, Sean McKeon and possibly Josh Ball and Francis Bernard.
And they don't want to sacrifice young guys at the bottom of the roster to do so for a guy unlikely to be around next year, with reduced participation this year. Progress stoppers are unwelcomed in the NFL.
So, "multiple factors." Tough business this NFL.
Had been such a good reclamation story for three years.
- Inside TD Pass: So Dak Prescott's 35-yard touchdown pass to Amari Cooper to help break open the 36-28 victory over Carolina might have looked familiar to you. Remember the Chargers game in Week 2 when Dak missed a wide-open Cooper 5 yards behind the defensive back for what would have been a touchdown, instead throwing a 20-yard completion to Blake Jarwin over the middle? Well, this time, with the Cowboys lined up with three receivers left, with Cooper again going in motion right to the numbers, he does a little out and up. Same thing in that L.A. game. This time it was tight end Dalton Schultz wide open about 20 yards downfield, but this time Dak went big, giving Cooper a chance, unleashing a deep throw when Cooper was at the 20. He ends up making a great catch of a great throw right at the goal line. Said offensive coordinator Kellen Moore of the play against the Chargers, "(Dak) knew he had Amari but there was this big opening in the middle of the field. Blake is staring at him right there (holds his hands up). Sometimes as a quarterback, you have just the attraction of somebody staring right at you wide open that overrides it and he naturally threw it to Blake." But not this time.
- Play II: And that third-and-1 from the Carolina 41-yard line at the game's two-minute warning? Dak handing off to Ezekiel Elliott who pitches out right to Tony Pollard for 5 yards, and the first down to ice the victory? Well, Moore unearthed that one from last year's Minnesota game when Zeke that time pitched to CeeDee Lamb lined up in the backfield with him. "They load up the box, and if we have an open edge out there, we'll take our opportunity. We feel very comfortable that putting the ball in Zeke's and Tony's hands they will make great decisions and protect the ball." Or better said, take their shot.
- Mac Attack: In case you haven't noticed, the Cowboys have figured out a way to get backup guard Connor McGovern involved on game day. For the past two weeks he's been reporting in (No. 66) as a blocking tight end and a fullback. That's right, at 6-5, 315. And so far he's doing a heckuva job at fullback, digging out holes for Zeke. (See Zeke's 1-yard touchdown run on Sunday.) As for the personnel group with McGovern in the game, Moore says, "We just say Mac – M-A-C. That's the Mac Show, yep. Mac goes in there and he handles everything. It's been awesome. He's a guy who has done some great stuff for us."
- 12 Personnel: As in one running back and two tight ends. Some folks hate that, but the Cowboys, with Jarwin and Schultz, have been mighty productive playing two tight ends. First, they can give now starting right tackle Terence Steele some help at the line of scrimmage if needed. Secondly, defenses aren't sure if the Cowboys are going heavy to run the ball or will possibly send one or both tight ends out in the pass patterns. And for evidence of how effective this can be, go to the Cowboys' first possession of the third quarter in the Carolina game. First play, two tight, Zeke for 11. Second play, three tight, Zeke for 5 yards. Third play, 3 tight with McGovern one of them, 5 yards. Fourth play, three wide, first-and-10 at the Carolina 35, the touchdown pass to Cooper.
- Little Shots: Maybe Treveon Diggs knows what he's talking about, having said after winning NFC Defensive Player of the Month in September that he wants to win another monthly one. Well, he's off to a good start, his two picks and two passes broken up on Sunday earning him NFC Defensive Player of the Week, a rarity for Cowboys cornerbacks of late … Don't mess with the Cowboys offense, now third in total yards, second in rushing yards, second in first downs and most importantly fourth in total points, averaging 31.5 a game … Then there is this in the Cowboys News Release notes package: Dak has thrown 17 touchdown passes in his career against the Giants, most against a single opponent, with 12 of those TD passes at least 20 yards for a 71-percent rate.
And this week's last word goes to Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, talking about the major career turnaround for defensive end Randy Gregory during his radio segment on 105.3 The Fan. After having been suspended multiple times for violation of the NFL's substance abuse policy, Gregory is on his way to having the best year of his career what with his first two sacks of the season against Carolina and now second on the team with seven QB pressures, one behind Micah Parsons.
"He's a great example of the fact that none of us got on this earth without having some issues that we had to work around and overcome. But you can have those issues that can color you – put an image of you – when that's not you at all. And Randy Gregory is a posterchild of that.
"He's outstanding, and he's addressed an issue that he's had that certainly has been a challenge for him, and he's done it really so successfully. He's unquestionably a leader on this team."
Also, another reason why Jerry continues to show patience with these various reclamation projects.