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Spagnola: Who Would Have Thought This Possible

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FRISCO, Texas – This should be the talk of the town.

If not for the Cowboys coming into Sunday's noon contest with the 2-1 Cleveland Browns at 1-2, nevertheless tied for first in the NFC East, their worst three-game record to open a season since 2010.

If not for a defense not quite defensive enough after three games, having given up 97 points, just a smidge more than 32 points a game.

If not for the porous secondary, having been slapped over three games for touchdown passes of 22 yards, 42, 43 and 29, and by the grace of the football gods a should-have-been 63 yarder turned into a 62-yard completion fumbled out the back of the end zone for a touchback.

If not for the Cowboys tied for dead last when it comes to their minus-4 turnover differential thanks to six turnovers and just two takeaways.

If not for the Browns themselves coming in with their best opening three-game record since 2011.

Yes, this guy's story should be dominating our attention.

Yet, if not for our preoccupation with the Cowboys missing their starting two offensive tackles and the presumptive swing tackle a combined seven of a possible nine-game opportunities, though appears Tyron Smith will be ready to go Sunday.

If not for even more preoccupation with special teams, good and bad, Greg Zuerlein's now famed "Watermelon" onside kick followed by a game-winning 46-yard, walk-off field goal, but also the Cowboys two failed fake punts, Zuerlein's missed 53-yard field goal in the season-opening three-point loss to the Rams and then Tony Pollard's muffed kickoff return he recovered at his own 1-yard line leading to a Seahawks safety the next play and two Zuerlein missed extra points in Seattle, one of those blocked.

Oh, and one more: If not for the Cowboys once again owning the No. 1 offense in the NFL when it comes to the 1,472 yards gained.

Guess we should also point out COVID-19, fans or no fans in stadiums and kneel or stand distractions.

All of that in just the first month of the NFL season.

But stand down, how about this Aldon Jacarus Smith?

You know, the Cowboys sometimes defensive end, sometimes DPR (designated pass rusher), sometimes linebacker.

But, my gosh, fulltime player-man.

Yep, the guy the Cowboys took an, oh, let's say, 25-to-1 gamble on, having not played a down of NFL football since Nov. 15, 2015, due to multiple suspensions thanks to personal and legal complications causing him to miss the past four seasons.

That guy trying to make a logic-defying comeback at the age of 31 he turned this past Friday.

Some would say his story is the real definition of fantasy football.

Yet Smith's perseverance, mixed with the Cowboys' and owner Jerry Jones' willingness to take a calculated risk on this longshot, has turned this redemptive tale into true-life reality.

Why, we're talking the guy whose life was below the dumps, yet figured out how to claw himself out for this second chance, enters into Sunday's game at AT&T Stadium leading the entire NFL with four sacks. Say what you want about the Aaron Donalds or Chase Youngs or J.J. Watts or even Cleveland's Myles Garrett, who returns home to Arlington on Sunday to play the team he watched growing up.

But it's Aldon Smith leading the league in sacks. Please allow that to sink in. Leads the league in sacks.

Not just that, he's fourth on the Cowboys with 21 total tackles – most for a defensive lineman – third with seven quarterback pressures and tied for first with two passes defensed.

And granted, it's only three games. But this should not be a footnote. This should be trumpeted long and loud.

Just amazing.

Smith has constructed that total with a sack in the season opener of the Rams' Jared Goff, and then a three-spot this past Sunday in Seattle of Russell Wilson. You would have to go back to Oct. 30, 2011, to find the last time a Cowboys player had more than three sacks in one game, DeMarcus Ware with four, and know Bob Lilly (1966) and Jim Jeffcoat (1985) own the franchise single-game record with five.

As for the last Cowboys player with a three-sack game? DeMarcus Lawrence against Detroit on Sept. 30, 2018, in Game 4 of the season, making Smith's the most by a Cowboys player in the past 31 games.

Yet, Smith remains humble, a sure sign of maturity not to get carried away with himself, as he might have done back early in his career when San Francisco selected him with the seventh overall pick in the 2011 draft out of the University of Missouri. He proceeded to take the NFL by storm, starting out as a mere 22-year-old with 33.5 sacks his first two seasons, then adding another 8.5 in just 11 games in 2013.

Let that sink in, 42 sacks in three seasons.

So three in one game might have reminded him of days gone by, but did not seem to knock him off his current life's course. His perspective is heart-warming, considering what he's been through.

"I feel like I try to bring my A-game every time I go out and play," Smith said after the Cowboys' 38-31 loss to the Seahawks. "I work well with the other guys, and we work well with each other. Rushing is a team effort, especially with (Russell Wilson).

"If it wasn't for the other guys playing their roles and doing things, it would have been much tougher for me to makes some plays out there."

Quite a healthy approach not to get too carried away with himself, having upped his career sack total to 51.5 sacks, having reached 50 sacks in just 62 career games, one of seven players to do so by their 62nd game, putting his name in the fancy company of Reggie White, Derrick Thomas, Von Miller, Justin Houston, Watt and Dwight Freeney.

Those around him contend he has meshed right into the locker room as well. That he's been a good teammate. Jokes with the guys. Even will dish out some good advice to the younger players on the team, something he said right from the start when the Cowboys signed him in the spring, wanting to pay it forward. Maybe help some guys not make the same mistakes he made.

After his debut in that Rams game, when he registered the one sack, 12 tackles, one pressure and one pass defensed, Will McClay, Cowboys vice president of player personnel, said, "I don't think a lot of us could have gone through that situation, come back on the football field and played 10 plays, so the number of plays he played and the level that he played at gives you a great deal of hope and promise for the next game and the next game after that."

How true. So, for three games, a guy who last played in a game five years ago, has now started all three and played 175 out of a possible 224 snaps (78.1 percent), by far the most on the defensive line.

For more perspective on just what Aldon has done so far, consider these four sacks are his first since having played that Nov. 15, 2015 day for the Raiders against Minnesota before landing on reserve/suspended. And he had not recorded as many as three sacks in a game since his incredible 5.5-pack, along with six solo tackles, against Chicago on Nov. 19, 2012 when earning NFC Defensive Player of the Week, that being his second season in the league finishing with 19.5 sacks that All-Pro year, just one shy of NFL leader Watt's 20.5.

The three-spot against Seattle was his 18th multi-sack game of his career (1.5 or more), second most in his interrupted career and first multi-sack game since logging two against Washington on Nov. 24, 2014 while still with the Niners, having missed nine games that year serving his second of three NFL suspensions.

Here is another oddity lacing what most would consider an improbable comeback: According to NFL Research, the 7 years, 312 days between three-sack performances is the sixth longest such stretch since sacks became an official NFL stat in 1982.

From a financial standpoint, Smith is playing on a one-year, prove-it $910,000 minimum base salary for a sixth-year player. But included in the contract are a slew of incentives, like $40,625 every time he is on the active, game-day roster ($121,875 so far). He is halfway to a $500,000 incentive for recording eight sacks this year, an incentive that increases incrementally for 10 to 12 and tops out at $2 million for 14.

Not bad for a guy who hadn't earned a dime in the NFL for four seasons and lost money those final two years he did play (2014-15) while suspended a total of 16 games.

"Aldon is off to an excellent start, so with that he's establishing his standard of play," Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy says of what the team is expecting from him now. "But also you've got to keep your eyes wide open to the fact that the challenges that are going to be in front of him are going to be more excessive. He plays his opening game against the Rams and then in Week 2 (the Falcons) are sliding the protection to him. Those are the types of challenges I'm sure he's going to see moving forward.

"But as long as he plays to the standard he's established, which isn't always reflective in stats, I think we'll all be very, very happy, and most important, I think he'll be pleased with the way his season is going to turn out."

What could then become the talk of the entire NFL.

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