IRVING, Texas – The transformation from solid to elite that's expected of a top-10 draft pick may already be taking place for the Cowboys' 22-year-old left tackle.
Just ask the quarterback Tyron Smith's blocking for, who said the tackle's playing at a Pro Bowl level in his second year at the position since shifting from the right side of the line.
"He's playing really good football," said Tony Romo. "I hope people recognize how good he's playing right now."
Smith's season is somewhat a microcosm of his entire career, getting better as it unfolds.
Everyone's realized the physical gifts Smith's possessed from the start of his NFL career, with his distinctive combination of size and speed. That was evident at USC's Pro Day, when he put up 31 bench reps and ran a sub-5.0 40-yard dash time and subsequently found himself the No. 9 pick in the 2011 NFL Draft.
It was always a matter of harnessing that talent, and all of it was on full display in Thursday's win against the Raiders.
DeMarco Murray's three rushing touchdowns on Thanksgiving marked the first multiple rushing touchdown game by a Cowboys player since Marion Barber had two against New Orleans in 2009. It marked the first time a Cowboys running back had three rushing touchdowns in a game since Julius Jones accomplished the feat against the Seahawks in 2004.
All three of Murray's touchdowns can be attributed in some fashion to Smith, who helped bulldoze the path.
Smith and tight end James Hanna combined to pancake the defensive end on Murray's two-yard rushing touchdown to tie the game at seven. Smith was quick enough to have time to then get his hands on the last linebacker who could have made a play on Murray, allowing the running back to waltz in for the score.
Murray's next two rushing touchdowns both went right, yet Smith was quick enough to get across or past the line of scrimmage to make decisive and essential blocks on both of those plays. As Murray took a shotgun snap with 14 seconds remaining in the first half, Smith got quickly to the second level and put the linebacker on the ground.
With Mackenzy Bernadeau's perfect block at the next level, Murray read the running lane and had plenty of room to finish cross the goal line and give the Cowboys the momentum-shifting finish to the drive it needed entering the second half.
"It's just a testament to the offensive line," Murray said. "Those guys are blocking well and finishing blocks." [embedded_ad]
That score and finish to the half wouldn't have been possible if not for Smith's uncanny display of athleticism earlier in the drive. The Cowboys got into Oakland territory after starting from their own 27-yard line on their final drive of the half, but a short pass down the middle of the field to the Raiders' 27-yard line was fumbled by Dez Bryant.
It looked like only white Oakland jerseys existed in the area after the ball popped loose. That is, until Smith came flying in from the left side of the screen, snagging the ball away from defenders.
"I just saw it on the ground and went for it," Smith said. "That's just about instincts and going to get it. We knew it was an important drive and had to score points there."
The left tackle flashed all the speed that made him attractive to NFL owners and general managers and worthy of a top-10 selection. Without that recovery, it's at least a 14-point deficit for the Cowboys entering the half.
"You have to always (hustle)," Smith said. "You never know how the play is going to end up. That's something I always try to do."
It's not the first time one of Smith's hustle plays has helped the Cowboys avoid a travesty.
In the season opener against the Giants last year, Smith tracked down Michael Boley after the linebacker intercepted a pass by Romo and took it back to the Cowboys' goal-line. The defense held the Giants to three points on the drive.
Just a few days prior to the Raiders game last week, Smith helped the Cowboys maintain possession after Bryant fumbled against the Giants and the ball rolled backward down the sideline. Smith made contact with cornerback Terrell Thomas, who could only bat the ball farther down the field as it went out of bounds and the Cowboys maintained possession.
Those types of plays were reminiscent to Hall of Fame guard Larry Allen's miraculous display of athleticism when he chased down Darion Conner after an interception down the sideline in 1994.
Owner/general manager Jerry Jones said it's too early to be talking about Canton with Smith, but he said that's what comes to mind with a player of Smith's caliber. While Allen was obviously stronger, Jones did mention the Cowboys' current left tackle in the same breath as the mammoth Hall of Fame lineman, which struck a chord with Smith.
"That's always great to get any comparison like that," Smith said. "He's one of the best to ever play."
Smith hasn't finished demonstrating his versatility and athleticism after Murray's second rushing touchdown in the Raiders game, either.
The left tackle again brought a defender to his feet on Murray's last and longest touchdown run of the game, blocking inside and cutting down the defensive tackle lined up between left guard Ronald Leary and center Travis Frederick. That block – combined with a chip from Leary, who then got the crucial block of the linebacker on the second level – helped spring Murray for seven yards and a score.
Smith said he thinks the line's gotten better the last few weeks at working together and being on the same page, which was evident on that last run and through most of the Thanksgiving game. "I just try to work on the little parts of my game every day," Smith said. "That's how you get better. I just try to clean up some things like mechanics and footwork and preparation. If you get better at that, you can take it to the field."