There haven’t been many positive stories so far in the Dallas Cowboys’ 2020 season. But while the team is struggling as a whole, Defensive End Aldon Smith is already making a great case to the be the NFL Comeback Player of the Year. After a five-year absence from the game, Smith has emerged as the league leader in sacks with four in just three weeks.
Aldon Smith was once one of the most feared sack artists in football. His 19.5 sacks in 2012 is one of the highest single-season marks in NFL history, just three shy of Michael Strahan’s record.
Personal issues soon sent Smith’s career and life into a spiral. He missed large chunks of games each of the next three years due to suspensions for substance abuse and personal conduct violations. By 2016 he was out of football as the NFL declined approval of his reinstatement requests.
Thankfully, the intended result of those disciplinary measures seem to work in Aldon’s case. He got his life back in order and was granted reinstatement for the 2020 season, now as a member of the Dallas Cowboys.
The positive reports about Smith started immediately, both personally and professionally. While he just turned 31 last week, Aldon was back in great shape and hit the ground running in training camp. His natural gifts and rare talent were not lost with time, and the lack of NFL mileage from his long absence has kept his body fresher than most players his age.
What we didn’t know a few weeks ago was how all of that positive momentum would carry into the regular season. Would Aldon Smith still be an impact player in real games against players with different helmets?
His current place on top of the NFL sack leaderboard is a firm, irrefutable answer.
This early surge puts Aldon Smith, given his story, in contention for the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year award. Only one Cowboys player has ever been named for it before; Greg Ellis in 2007. The former DE had 12.5 sacks that year after suffering an Achilles tear the year before.
At his current rate Smith would put up around 20 sacks this year. He actually has more sacks through these first three weeks than he did in Weeks 1-3 of his breakout 2012 season.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that this high production rate will continue. Teams will start devoting more resources to stopping him after Sunday’s explosion. That may help other Cowboys defenders to perform but will stunt Aldon’s numbers.
There’s also potential that Smith will slow down over the course of the year, having not been through the grind of a full NFL season in so long. His physical conditioning will be put to a tremendous test.
But that’s not the real story here. Even if Aldon Smith only finishes the season with a modest sack total, the true success happened the minute he got through camp and suited for his first NFL game in five years.
The Cowboys have many times tried to be a haven and rehab center for troubled players. It’s probably worked less often than it’s succeeded, and in Smith’s case a lot of the work happened before he ever joined Dallas.
But seeing what Aldon’s doing right now is very encouraging for what we hope to see from Randy Gregory this year. Another rare talent as a pass rusher, Gregory missed all of 2019 due to suspension but has been reinstated and can return as soon as Week 7.
Aldon Smith is now giving Randy a very real, accessible example of what he can aspire to. Hopefully they will have synergy on and off the field in their mutual comeback attempts.
For all of their sakes, and the Dallas Cowboys defense, let’s hope the feelgood stories continue. Aldon’s play has been one of the few things going right so far and the Cowboys may be leaning on him more and more as they try to get 2020 back on track.