Cowboys players got a loud-and-clear reminder this week that pro football is a business with the sudden release of veteran linebacker and locker room leader Jaylon Smith. But they wouldn’t have needed to look any further than the big corner office at The Star, because the boss has always been, at his core, a businessman.
Franchise owner Jerry Jones cut bait on an investment that was no longer paying the kind of dividends his portfolio needed when he sent Smith packing, even if it means taking a loss on the $7.2 million the team will continue to pay him to not wear a Cowboys uniform for the remainder of this season.
And with Smith no longer in the building or representing the brand, Jones had some surprisingly honest talk to dish out on the former second-round draft pick, making something of an admission on the injury that Smith spent an entire season recovering from, and even- in a roundabout way- comparing the onetime Pro Bowler to a used truck.
During a phone-in with a Dallas radio station 105.3 The Fan on Friday, Jones was asked if releasing one of the most recognizable faces of the franchise was difficult.
“Well, it was,” Jones told the K&C Masterpiece show, “and principally, because he’s such a warrior. He really was what you think about when you think of somebody overcoming adversity. And for this game, he had a great hurdle to overcome: his injury. And that drop foot- it’s called drop foot, that he had, and it still plagues him to this day- was mind over matter in my mind.”
Still plagues him to this day is not a phrase Cowboys fans have heard before concerning Smith or the apparent after-effects of his injury. It’s certainly not a phrase that engenders confidence about his future performance.
It’s (perhaps) also worth noting that Jones switched to past tense when speaking about Smith as a player.
The horrific ACL and LCL tears Smith suffered in his final college game at Notre Dame sent him plummeting from the early first round of the 2016 NFL draft, where he was expected to be a top-five pick. The Cowboys claimed him 34th overall, way too early for most pundits at the time. But with the Cowboys’ own doctor having been Smith’s surgeon, the team rolled the dice on him making a full recovery.
After sitting out the 2016 season, Smith returned to action during the 2017 campaign. By 2018, he was a starter and a dominant force at middle linebacker.
Jones, the longtime oilman, had gone in on a well that everyone said was dry. Instead, it boomed. The billionaire has always loved it when his gambles hit, when a diamond on the rough is revealed to have been unearthed under his watchful eye.
Cowboys fans saw it when Jimmy Johnson and his laughingstock of a team morphed into a dynasty. When an undrafted benchwarmer named Tony Romo became the toast of the NFL. When an ex-backup ascended through the ranks to become head coach of America’s Team. Jones was the architect of it all, the record will show. Or at least on the outskirts, like Forrest Gump, in just the right place to be able to claim a supporting role as history is made.
Smith’s incredible comeback was a story Jones had to be a part of. The Indiana native was signed to a five-year, $64 million contract extension. Although some theorized it was, at least in part, a move meant to send a message to running back Ezekiel Elliott during his holdout before the 2019 season, Smith and his new pay grade went on to have a Pro Bowl year.
No one is disputing the level of commitment that was required from Smith to even try to play football again, much less do so at an all-star caliber. It’s a huge part of Smith’s redemption story, and one that Jones was happy to retell.
“Now, there was a lot of physical rehab that he had to do, too,” Jones recounted. “People such as- and I’m serious- specifically, Jason Witten and such as Sean Lee, when they would work with him as he was rehabbing, would tell me, ‘We’ve never seen anybody go to the levels that he’ll push himself for this rehab or to overcome this injury. We’ve never seen anybody.’ Well, look who’s saying that: Witten and Sean Lee. So he had the right stuff, and I thought it was really unfortunate because I love what he is about as a person. The fact that he works so hard as far as entrepreneurial supporting of minority entrepreneurs, and he has that understanding of how to take it and run with it, and that one and one can be three. So he had a combination of not just talking about it on the field, he did it on the field. He had a combination of talking about it and doing it off the field. I think he’s going to be an outstanding success, and he is already, but an outstanding success beyond his football career.”
Smith’s playing days aren’t over; he was signed by Green Bay just hours after his release in Dallas. But Jones sounds like a man who has already moved on. He arguably overpaid for a stock while it was doing well, but he got out from under it once it appeared to be slipping. And now there are new futures to speculate on.
Like the future of the 2021 Cowboys, suddenly a defensive powerhouse over the first four games of the season, with a bevy of bright young stars to get excited about.
Jones was asked if the emergence of the unit’s newcomers- like Micah Parsons, Trevon Diggs, Osa Odighizuwa, and others- made it easier to say goodbye to a player that Jones had clearly connected with.
“There’s no question we got young players that can fit, really, what we’re doing so well,” Jones explained. “And they have an upside. And as I’ve often said: you can’t have it all. Our system doesn’t allow you to have it all. You guys remember my old story of driving up to my airplane in a five-year-old Bronco- in a muddy five-year-old Bronco- and I had media with me and they said, ‘This makes no sense. You’re driving up to an airplane that you have in a five-year-old Bronco.’ And I said, ‘Well, it makes all the sense in the world. You can’t have it all. This is how you have an airplane, is to drive a five-year-old Bronco.’ Something has to give.”
Think about that story, especially in answer to that question.
Is Jaylon Smith the old Ford Bronco? Is the belief that a Super Bowl could be on the horizon the airplane that Jones and the Cowboys are driving up to? Did Jones just suggest out loud that Jaylon Smith no longer has upside?
Sure sounded like it.
Cowboys fans had feared for a while that Smith’s best days were behind him, but it’s harsh to hear an eternal champion of optimism like Jones put it so bluntly.
Another injury suffered by Smith would have put the Cowboys on the hook for over $9 million more next season, and it turned out to be a greater risk than Jones was willing to take. You don’t drop a whole new transmission in the used car you keep out back when there’s a brand-new hot rod sitting in the garage.
There’s been a lot of talk during the team’s 3-1 start that there’s a new culture forming in the Dallas locker room. Jones admits that cutting Smith- a loved emotional leader on the team- changes that culture moving forward.
“I think you’re seeing, from the reaction of the players, there’s appreciation for Jaylon Smith, and we don’t gain on anything by not having him on the team relative to the heart of the team and the competitiveness of the team. That was not–” Jones stopped himself and then continued. “He’s very additive there. And had the story to back it up and would pay the price to back it up. But our situation had some different things we had to consider, and we did. In his case, we had been great to him- the team, the fans, everyone- and he’s been great to the team and the fans. And that’s one of those [cases] that you wish everybody well here.”
In other words, it’s not personal. It’s business.