Mac Engel

A frightening hope for an average Cowboys defense

Jaylon Smith won’t make his Cowboys’ debut on Saturday night, but the day is drawing near he’s going to play in an actual game that counts.

Agreed, preseason football games don’t count for much, but appearing in a fake game for Smith would be the biggest game of his career. Right now the hope (prayer?) is the second-year linebacker from Notre Dame will play against the Colts on Aug. 19 at JerryWorld.

“He’s going to be a big part of this organization for a long time. We have to go slow with this,” Cowboys VP Stephen Jones said.

Women dressing up on their wedding day move faster. Glaciers are quicker. Yet the Cowboys have no other alternative.

A linebacker who has yet to play a snap of football since suffering a major knee injury on New Year’s Day 2016 is the single biggest story of the Cowboys thus far. All he has done is practice.

We in here talkin’ about practice. Not a game. Not a game. Not a game. We talkin’ ’bout practice. How silly is that? (I’m sorry, that’s never going to grow old.)

We can all agree with philosopher Allen Iverson that lamenting, or celebrating, a player’s accomplishments in August is silly. It’s the Cowboys. It’s Jaylon Smith. It’s a desperate defense.

There is equal parts fascination and desperation to Smith because, as it stands right now, he is hope for a defense that remains the franchise’s weak link since 2009. Smith, bad knee and dropped foot and all, is hope for a defense the figures to be no better than its average self was in 2016.

Back in April, I essentially wrote off Smith; that the gamble to select the injured player early in the second round last year was simply not going to work. That a player having to wear a brace for a dropped foot, and make an impact, was too much.

Smith is wearing the brace, but it’s hard not to believe a little as he sprints and jumps around in Oxnard. There is so much ability there.

If he can ever reach a point where the brace is removed, which will mean full nerve regeneration in the knee, I will gladly order The Crow Basket special, deep fried preferably.

The fact that he has done this much despite the reality that his knee has not fully healed is progress. He will play this season, but the most realistic, and likely best-case scenario, for the Cowboys is that the knee fully heals in ’17, and he can be the Jaylon Smith we all want in ’18.

It’s August, but he is hope on a defense that is going to have be carried again by their brothers on offense. A defense that was barely average in 2016 lost six significant contributors from that team.

Watching defensive end Tyrone Crawford carted off the field after he sustained an injury late in practice on Tuesday was a head-shaking reminder of the wispy state of this defense.

Crawford’s injury turned out to be a sprained ankle, and he will be ready for Week 1. The prospect of losing him from this defense is akin to the Houston Texans’ playing without J.J. Watt all of last season. And Tyrone Crawford is not J.J. Watt.

For the Cowboys, the thought of losing any starter would sober up the drunkest of fans.

Which is exactly what the Cowboys need – a Watt-type. A player who is hell on two feet for an offense. The player when the quarterback breaks the huddle he immediately finds because he doesn’t want to die.

The last player to be that for the Cowboys was linebacker DeMarcus Ware, whom the team asked if he was interested in playing this season, but he chose to retire.

That leaves guys like Tank Lawrence, Maliek Collins and Benson Mayowa up front to do it. Not exactly comforting.

Linebacker Sean Lee is the best defender on the Cowboys, and one of the top two or three at his position in the NFL. He is just not a behind-the-line-of-scrimmage wreaking ball.

That could have been defensive end Randy Gregory, but his insatiable thirst for weed proved to be too great so he will sit out the season — cough, cough — rehabbing.

To ask rookie defensive end Taco Charlton to be that player at this point is both unfair and unrealistic.

“He needs to be a little more consistent with his intensity,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said of Taco’s first preseason game.

That’s not an atypical criticism for rookies.

All of this this is why the Cowboys are going to let the Smith scenario play out with no timetable. Because if Smith can return to the player he was before the injury, he’ll be the player former Cowboys linebacker Rolando McClain should have become.

McClain is out of the NFL now, but when he was engaged, interested and healthy he was an everywhere inside linebacker with the ability to know where the ball was going. And he could be there immediately.

That’s a healthy Jaylon Smith. That’s a player the Cowboys need. Desperately.

He’s not quite ready yet, but he’s hope.

Mac Engel: @macengelprof

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