Jaylon Smith is no longer a Cowboy. That part didn’t really surprise anybody. Many fans and analysts who watch the team closely have been waiting for this inevitability for at least a year now. It’s the timing of the move - early October and with the team on a three-game winning streak - that’s catching people off guard.
It’s definitely an odd time to cut a veteran player whose salary was guaranteed, but there are football reasons for doing so. Micah Parsons has played better than anyone expected, and Keanu Neal is returning from the COVID-19 reserve list. Those are the Cowboys’ two nickel linebackers, and Dallas can rotate in Leighton Vander Esch when they put Parsons on the line of scrimmage as a pass rusher. Plus, there’s Jabril Cox, a promising rookie who has been a regular contributor on special teams thus far, something Smith doesn’t provide.
In the end, this linebacker corps is in great shape and Smith didn’t provide enough value on game days. If anything, he provided negative value. Through four games, opposing quarterbacks were regularly throwing checkdown passes in his direction, knowing he could be beat in the open field: Smith’s average depth of target of 0.3 yard is the lowest figure among defenders with at least 10 targets, and yet Smith was allowing 71 yards after the catch. He was a liability in coverage, didn’t do enough in run support, and couldn’t play on special teams. As a result, he’s gone.
In many ways, this is a direct reflection of the culture Mike McCarthy has established. Prior to McCarthy, the Cowboys’ culture had been routinely criticized for being too soft, often giving players special treatment because of their salary or how much owner Jerry Jones liked them. The phrase “country club” became popular after Jimmy Johnson called out the culture in Dallas in 2012:
“The No. 1 motivator (in the NFL) is fear. Fear of maybe letting down your teammates or being embarrassed or chastised or fear of losing your job,” Johnson told Patrick. “Where is the fear in Dallas? There is no fear in Dallas. It’s a country club where everybody is buddies.”
For all of the criticisms McCarthy received in his time with the Packers, this country club mentality was never one of them. McCarthy’s culture was more synonymous with the coach’s own Pittsburgh background, a type of blue collar mentality that prioritizes getting it done by any means over having the “right kind of guy” in the building. It’s a tough culture to instill, and doesn’t mesh well with players - say, a quarterback - who needs to have his ego massaged from time to time. But McCarthy’s results in Green Bay - 125 regular wins, 10 playoff victories, and a Lombardi Trophy - are hard to argue with.
Perhaps the best example of McCarthy’s culture with the Packers came during the 2018 season, which ended up being his last year there. Green Bay was 3-2-1 and coming out of the bye week on the road against an undefeated Rams team. After Greg Zuerlein kicked a field goal to put the Rams up 29-27, Aaron Rodgers was about to get the ball back with two minutes remaining. Everyone knew how this was going to end.
Instead, running back Ty Montgomery took the kickoff out of the endzone and ended up fumbling the ball right into the arms of the Rams. There would be no fourth quarter comeback for Rodgers, the Packers lost a close one, and it ended up kicking off a three-game losing streak that resulted in McCarthy’s firing. Two days later, Montgomery was traded away from the team. Of course, Montgomery had been struggling in prior weeks too, but this play was the last straw. He wasn’t helping the Packers win, and actually doing the opposite, so he no longer had a spot on the roster.
McCarthy has brought this same mentality to the Cowboys. He made this very clear the first time he met with the full team last offseason, saying “Everything we do will be about winning.” In short, players that help the Cowboys win continue to play. And if you can’t help them win, they’ll find someone else who can. Smith’s surprise release is a result of this new culture, which doesn’t care how good your story is or how much money you’re promised. For the first time in a while, winning is the top priority in Dallas.