ARLINGTON, Texas -- Jerry Jones loves taking chances in the second rounds of drafts.
It’s where he can do some of that wildcatting that made him so successful in the oil and gas industry so many years ago. If a move works, great. If it doesn’t, well, what’s the worst thing that can happen to someone who is the general manager and owner of the Dallas Cowboys?
In 2015, the Cowboys took a major chance on Randy Gregory, who fell off draft boards for off-field issues, including a failed drug test at the NFL scouting combine. Dallas took him with the 60th overall pick. In 2016, the Cowboys took a major chance on Jaylon Smith, who fell off draft boards because of a serious knee injury that included nerve damage that he suffered in his final game at Notre Dame. Dallas drafted him No. 34 overall.
“We took those guys with our eyes wide open and understanding what kind of players they can be and what kind of players we thought they can be,” coach Jason Garrett said.
On Sunday, the Cowboys’ ability to clinch the NFC East title with a win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would have been much more difficult without Gregory and Smith.
They combined for a signature play in the first quarter of the 27-20 win.
Gregory, who was considered the best pass rusher at one point during the lead-up to the 2015 draft, was able to track down Jameis Winston from behind for a 2-yard sack on third down, forcing the ball loose.
Smith, who was considered one of the top prospects in college football before tearing the anterior cruciate and lateral collateral ligaments in his knee, scooped up the fumble and ran 69 yards for the first touchdown of his NFL career and first since he was at Bishop Luers High School in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
“This is what makes us who we are,” Smith said. “Everyone has been through something in their lives. Everyone has that edge and that drive. Once we define it and find it, you have to use it as fuel.”
Gregory’s issues were self-made. He has been suspended multiple times for violating the substance-abuse policy, but he made it back from a year-long banishment over the summer. On occasion, he has missed practice time to meet with the NFL’s medical director in Chicago. The Cowboys have attempted to support Gregory on and off the field.
In a week in which New England Patriots receiver Josh Gordon received an indefinite suspension for more missteps with the substance-abuse policy, Gregory, who declined to comment after the game, turned in the biggest play of the game.
“I give Randy Gregory a tremendous amount of credit for what he’s done off the field to get himself an opportunity to come back and continue to play,” Garrett said. “He’s worked very hard at this. It’s not an easy thing. We’ve been certainly been supportive of him organizationally, the coaches, his teammates, but he deserves a tremendous amount of credit for getting himself back to this position.”
Gregory had one sack in the first 14 games of his career in 2015 and ’16. His sack of Winston on Sunday was his sixth this season.
“Everybody in that locker room is with him,” Jones said. “It really means something to really understand what it means for him to work through his issues. Everybody has to, but he’s had his share, whether it’s self-made or not. He’s really someone to be proud of.”
When the Cowboys drafted Smith, he could not lift his toes off the ground because of damage to the peroneal nerve. The Cowboys knew the ligaments would heal and had more belief than most that the nerve would regenerate, since team physician Dr. Daniel Cooper performed Smith’s surgery.
“So many people doubted me that I couldn’t afford to [doubt myself],” Smith said.
He did not play a down as a rookie in 2016. He played in every game last season and finished with 99 tackles, but he was more effective in smaller doses. This season, he started every game at middle linebacker, is second on the team in tackles and has four sacks.
“When you’re on a journey like that, it’s a lonely existence,” Garrett said. “Day after day after day, the team is working [and] you’re by yourself again and again and again, trying to work your way back. It’s a very inspirational story for me. Literally, when I’m talking about it right now, the hair stands up on my neck.”
Garrett’s hair might have been standing up on his neck after Gregory forced the fumble and Smith ran for the touchdown. The second-round chances the Cowboys took paid off.
“It’s probably great belief by the owner -- I mean, it starts there,” defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. “And then it’s our ability to get these guys right. But I just think the one thing that separates these guys from a lot of other guys is their love of football. They both love football so much. And it’s easier to battle back with that love. And I mean they’re both -- it’s hard. Both these guys. They just keep coming. And, yeah, what a play, huh?”