FRISCO, Texas -- Jon Gruden could not get enough of Aldon Smith on Nov. 19, 2012.
Serving as ESPN's "Monday Night Football" analyst, Gruden was effusive with his praise of the then-San Francisco 49ers pass-rusher.
"Aldon Smith is unblockable," Gruden said after Smith's second sack. Later Gruden said, "That's how Reggie White used to do it in his prime."
"I have a thing for night games," Smith said after his highlight performance. "I love playing at night. I love the lights."
"Dominating," said Scott Tolzien, now an offensive staff assistant with the Cowboys and then the Niners' No. 3 quarterback in 2012 as he saw his old college teammate, Gabe Carimi, attempt to block Smith. "Every other third down you heard his name called and he's doing a sack dance. I'd just never been a part of that. In high school there's always these alpha dudes that just can't be blocked because it's just a huge mismatch. It reminded me of a high school game where the guys couldn't hold up, like, 'I don't care who was out there, this guy can't be stopped.'"
Smith was 23 years old then, on his way to 19.5 sacks in his second season in the NFL and full of promise. He reached 30 sacks in 27 games. His 33.5 sacks are an NFL record for a player in his first two seasons.
Now, Smith is 31 and his journey back to the NFL has been successful so far. His four sacks lead the Cowboys and are tied for seventh in the NFL entering Week 6. He is fourth on the team with 29 tackles and second on the team with 15 quarterback pressures.
What they're saying
Joe Looney was a rookie offensive lineman for the 49ers in 2012. Each day he and fellow rookie Al Netter had to block Aldon and Justin Smith in practice. It was not pretty, but not as bad as what Aldon Smith did to the Bears that night.
"I remember specifically just watching him take a long arm on the tackle and rip under and get a sack," Looney said. "It was almost like every play he was in the backfield."
Smith has not been in the backfield on every play through five Cowboys games, but he had his highest pass-rush win rate of the season (26.1%) in last week's win against the New York Giants. In Week 3, he had three sacks of Seattle's Russell Wilson.
"It's unbelievable what he's accomplished after sitting out as long as he sat out," Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said. "I do think, fortunately or unfortunately, the expectations are starting to be there. This just didn't start the first game. We started to see this from the time he walked in here."
Early in on-field workouts, Cowboys vice president of player personnel Will McClay had Jones in his office to show practice battles between Aldon and Tyron Smith, the Cowboys' Pro Bowl left tackle.
"That tells you all you need to know because Tyron handles most people pretty readily," Jones said. "So we kind of felt it coming."
Aldon Smith went 1,764 days between games, from Nov. 15, 2015, to Sept. 13, 2020. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, he had no offseason program or preseason games to get reacclimated. Cowboys defensive end Tyrone Crawford went 616 days between games after missing the 2013 season with a torn Achilles. He played in four games last season before undergoing surgery to both hips. He understands how difficult it is to come back from long layoffs. He says Smith has "picked up where he left off."
"I saw his work in the offseason, just sending videos in to each other, just of what we were doing and the workouts, and you know why the guy is where he is and doing what he is doing," Crawford said. "He works hard. He works hard at it. He loves it. You can't take nothing away from him."
Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith went 618 days between his final game at Notre Dame when he suffered a potential career-ending knee injury in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl to the Cowboys' 2017 season opener.
"I understand all the different [things] that go into it from a mental and physical standpoint," Jaylon Smith said. "Can't be more proud of Aldon and what he's doing and how he's come back and contributed a lot to this team, to this defense. He's like a big brother to me. ... His energy is electric. I think just his understanding and awareness of just life."
Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott missed six games in 2017 because of a suspension and then missed all of training camp in 2019 in a contract holdout.
"It just shows how special of a player he is. It shows how smart he is, just to jump right back into football that quick and kind of pick up where he left off five years ago," Elliott said of Aldon Smith. "I'd rather have him on my team."
'The standard that he's established'
After the season-opening loss against the Los Angeles Rams, Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy said the Atlanta Falcons slid their protections to Smith in Week 2. Through five games, only 14 edge rushers have been double-teamed more than Smith, according to ESPN Stats & Information pass-rush metrics.
"As long as he plays to the standard that he's established, which isn't always reflected in stats, I think we'll all be very, very happy," McCarthy said. "More importantly, I think he'll be pleased with the way his season's going to turn out."
And if he has a Monday night against the Cardinals like he did against the Bears eight years ago?
"The easy response would be, 'No I'm not surprised because he was a freak back then and that's what I remember,' but a four-year hiatus, that's a long time," Tolzien said.
"I am [surprised] because you would have thought there would be some kind of a grace period to get back in shape, find your groove, knock the rust off. It's been neat, I guess, to watch because I knew a young Aldon and I know a current Aldon and you feel like you've known him for a while, and to be able to see who he's become as a player and, probably more importantly, as a person, you're rooting a little extra for him."