With all of the offseason attention Jason Garrett received over the Cowboys' play-calling situation, it's easy to overlook that since Garrett became the head coach in late 2010, there has been a radical shift in the organization's philosophy regarding personnel. Rather than collecting individual talents and lumping them together, Garrett has attempted to build a team, a true cohesive unit, whose worth is greater than the sum of its parts by emphasizing oft-overlooked traits: intelligence, character, drive, and perhaps most importantly, selflessness.
In his search for the "right kind of guys," the Garrett-led Cowboys have landed a number of values through the draft. Those players – Bruce Carter and DeMarco Murray, among others – have been able to excel on the field by combining elite talent with the "intangibles" every team covets.
But perhaps no player reflects the traits Garrett seeks, perhaps no player is more of the right kind of guy, than third-year left tackle Tyron Smith.
On the field, Smith has quickly become one of the NFL's most promising offensive tackles. He allowed only three sacks in his first season at left tackle and Dallas running backs averaged a full yard per carry more when running behind him than the other linemen. Even better, Smith will enter the 2013 season at just 22 years of age. At a time when most players are beginning their NFL careers as rookies, the USC product has already proven himself as one of the game's up-and-coming young talents. With what he calls a "major difference" in comfort on the left side this year as compared to last, Smith is prepared for a major breakthrough in his third campaign.
But all of the on-field accomplishments, the development we've witnessed on Sundays, are a small part of what has those within the organization so excited about Smith's future. It's the off-the-field traits that attracted Garrett and the Cowboys to him in the first place – his intelligence, commitment to the team and ability to overcome adversity – that ensure Smith's future in Dallas, as a player and a person, will be a bright one.
What were you doing at age 22? Most of us were confused, immature, still figuring out what to make of our lives. Now imagine that you're a rich 22-year-old with a decent amount of time on your hands. What would you be doing? For Smith, the answer is an offseason dedicated to improving in his line of work.
When I spoke with him in mid-June, the first thing we discussed was his workout regimen. I knew the star left tackle was committed in the offseason, but his dedication to football and his intense focus on improving stuck out to me.
"I'm doing a lot of karate and yoga right now, but that's in addition to my other training," Smith says. "I think that stuff can help with my flexibility and balance, and of course we train really hard in the weight room. In there, it's mainly about packing on muscle and adding strength right now, so the other workouts I do really balance that out."
The sessions are long and intense, but they're not done in isolation. Smith also routinely works on his technique, even outside of offseason practices.
"On the field, I'm just trying to improve my entire game, both run blocking and pass protection," says Smith. "I've been focusing a lot on my footwork, trying to get into my set quicker and really make sure my technique is clean."
Smith's transition from the right side to the left has been relatively smooth, but it's not an easy one to make.
"You face better pass-rushers at left tackle, but there are good pass-rushers all over the field," he says. "The main issue for me has been getting the steps down. There's a lot of muscle memory involved, so I had to teach my body to basically do the opposite of what I'd been doing for years at right tackle."
With all of the time Smith puts into his training, gaining weight has always been a struggle. He says that he typically loses about 10 pounds during training camp alone due to the volume of work and a fast metabolism.
"I'm actually planning to go into camp at about 320 pounds this year because I know I'll lose so much weight. So I'll probably start the season at about 310 pounds."
Even though it's a challenge to bulk up while still training vigorously, the real work for Smith doesn't begin until the season starts. It's then that he combines the physical day-to-day grind of playing in the NFL with the cerebral aspects of being a starting left tackle. Let's let him take you through his typical workday during the regular season:
"A lot of people think we just practice for a few hours and then go home, but there's a whole lot more that goes into a normal day. I get up early in the morning so that I can work out before practice. I usually do a lot of lighter stuff during the regular season, trying to prevent injuries. It's not as much heavy weight, but I still work out for a while before we need to be there. Then we have position meetings in the morning, usually just the offensive linemen but sometimes the entire offense. We watch a ton of film of ourselves and the opponents, and go over our playbook and responsibilities, things like that. It's a lot more of an education than you might think."
And that doesn't even include what most people think of as practice.
"During the on-field portion, it's obviously great to go up against our pass-rushers," Smith says. "Anthony (Spencer) and DeMarcus (Ware) are tough. Kyle Wilber has been awesome this offseason. During the regular season, though, I'm almost always matched up with DeMarcus, and he does a really good job of imitating other defenders. If I'm going to be facing a speed defender that week, he can give me that look during practice so I'm ready, and if I'll be facing a power guy he can give that look, too."
After matching up against one of the league's most feared pass-rushers, the day has really just begun.
"Following practice, we study what we did on the field so we can figure out where we need to improve," Smith says. "And, of course, we again go over our plays, protections and all of that, so we're in the classroom a lot more than outside on the field."
And once the official practice day is over, Smith can still be found hanging out around Valley Ranch, putting in extra study time.
"I can usually get out around 6 p.m., but I stay to study on a lot of days. I like to look at other left tackles around the league to see what they're doing well and try to find some stuff I can incorporate into my game. I really like to watch Joe Thomas, D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Joe Staley. And since Bill [Callahan] has come here, I've really started to like run-blocking more. So I try to find some stuff other great run-blockers are doing that could help me."
Smith's study time has had direct effects on the field.
"Even though the center is usually in charge of the line calls, it helps if we all know what we're seeing in the defense," he says. "When I study film after practice, it helps me see things on the field – blitzes and alignments – so I can help make calls for the rest of the line. And with Nate [Livings], we have an understanding of each other on the left side. He knows all of my calls and I know his. We work together in class so that when we go to the line, a lot of times we don't even need to say anything because we just know what the other one is thinking."
When I interviewed Smith for this story, he was driving to Houston with his girlfriend, Leigh. I asked him all kinds of questions and he gave in-depth answers for nearly all of them. The only hesitation came near the end of the call, when I asked Smith about any charity work he does. But not because he doesn't help out in the community. Far from it, actually.
"He doesn't really like to talk about that stuff," Leigh says in place for her humble boyfriend. "He does a lot of appearances for different organizations. He prefers that over working with one charity because he can give back however he wants. Next week, he'll be at a camp hosted by [former Texas Rangers catcher] Ivan Rodriguez."
So as much as Smith's arrival in Dallas has helped the team, it's benefited the community even more. A model citizen, the only reason his high character isn't more publicized is because of his modesty. Once Leigh mentioned some of Smith's additional efforts, though, he was more willing to discuss them.
"Yeah, I like to do different types of events and talk to kids," he says. "At Pudge's camp, I'm going to be speaking about the importance of taking care of your body and getting a good education. That's really significant and I want kids to know that. One of my goals is to go back to USC at some point to finish my degree. I think if I had stayed in school and not played football, I would have gotten into real estate. But I know how important education is and how much of a difference it can make. So stressing the importance of that is probably the main way I try to help the community. And then we also like to do a lot of work with dog rescues. There's just lots of ways to give back, and I'm in a position to do that, so I do."
Smith might not like to talk about his non-football activities, but it's obvious that he's very active in the community. He's been connected to a variety of youth camps and, when he received a $15,750 fine for a horse-collar tackle last season, he used it as an impetus to raise the same amount of money for children and adults with disabilities.
It seems like once a week we hear a story about NFL players getting arrested, missing practice or falling asleep in meetings. But we don't hear about the high-character athletes. We don't hear about the intelligent young men who work hard, day in and day out, excelling as players on the field and as people off of it.
We don't hear about them because for the right kind of guys, those like Smith, doing the right thing and being a role model just comes naturally. There are no ulterior motives and it's certainly not for publicity; as I found out, Smith would prefer to not even talk about all of his off-the-field activities that benefit the community. Instead, he'd rather fly under the radar and let his play speak for itself. [embedded_ad]
And his development as a player has certainly stood out. But while you see all of the pancake blocks and perfect pass protection on Sundays, you don't get to witness Smith arriving at Valley Ranch at 6:30 a.m. during the week, spending hours in the weight room, putting in extra time after practice to study, and still finding time to preach the importance of education to children in the community. So whether you need a Pro Bowl-caliber left tackle or a modest, hard-working, high-character young man to spend his free time helping those less fortunate, Tyron Smith is the right kind of guy.