At least that’s the view of Cowboys offensive line coach Paul Alexander, who says the eight-year pro has graded highly through the first seven games.
“I don’t know what he was in the past because I wasn’t coaching him, but the grades I’ve given him are good,” said Alexander, who is in his first season with the Cowboys after 23 years with the Bengals. “The grades I’ve given him in the games have translated into an elite left tackle grade. So that’s where he’s at. I do know the league well enough to know that if you’re 7-0 then everyone is great, too. I don’t know if that’s the case here or not.”
But Smith, who declined to speak with the media the past two days, hasn’t played at the same level as past seasons at times. He’s been beat, most noticeably on the outside on several plays and he’s been flagged for four penalties, including three on the road. Dallas is tied for fourth in the league with 11 holding calls on the offensive line.
Pro football focus gives Smith a 73.8 ratings, which ranks as the 20th best offensive tackle in the league and a “good” designation. But not “high quality” or “elite,” the top two tiers in their rating system. You could argue he’s been good, but no longer one of the top left tackles in the league. In his first seven seasons (105 games), Smith has 52 penalties.
Head coach Jason Garrett defended Smith’s performance but acknowledge his inconsistency this season.
“He’s an awfully good football player. We’re lucky to have him as our left tackle. And what we love about him most is that he’s the one that’s bothered most by him not playing at a high level on every snap,” Garrett said. “And that’s what makes him such a great player. He’s always driven to be his best and we’ll continue to work with him.”
Of course, Smith isn’t solely responsible for any rough patches with Dallas’ offensive line. All-Pro center Travis Frederick remains out with an auto-immune disease and won’t be back before mid-December, if at all. Joe Looney has performed admirably but he’s no Frederick.
Rookie Connor Williams has struggled at times against defensive tackles. He has been penalized three times (all on the road), including twice in the loss at Washington in which he was called for holding and a chop block. Right tackle La’el Collins has been called for five holding penalties, but two were declined.
“He started out rough then he played against [Jonathan] Allen this week and held his own,” Alexander said of Williams. “I’ve seen a line that’s gone up, sometimes that line is straight and there have been days where it goes down a little bit and then it kind of wobbles.”
Williams has handled a starting role as a rookie better than Alexander even hoped. Using All-Pro guard Zack Martin as a guide has been huge for Williams, he said.
“He works hard, he doesn’t pout. He twists an ankle and he’s still in there. He does everything. He’s gained the admiration of the players because he works hard. I think he’s going to be a terrific player,” said Alexander, who thought ill-timed penalties were the main cause for the team’s rushing issues against the Redskins.
“One play it’s this guy, that one it’s the next and unfortunately games happen that way sometimes and the biggest thing that hurt us I thought in the last game was penalties,” he said. “We couldn’t sustain a drive because we’d get a penalty. I really think if we had eliminated those we would have got some rhythm going and we would have turned out alright.”
As for Smith, Alexander doesn’t seem too distressed.
“He’s a joy to coach. He works as hard as any guy there is. He’s tough,” he said. “He goes against guys in individual drills and no one wants to go against him. He put a guy on injured reserve during a walk through a couple of years ago. He gets on you … I’ve enjoyed coaching him really. His grades from me have been good.”
The caveat in Alexander’s story about Smith, of course, is it’s from a “couple of years ago.”