Jaylon Smith will play meaningful football Sunday night for the first time since wrecking his knee, and nearly his career, while playing for Notre Dame in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl. Whether you are a fan of the New York Giants, which you probably are if you are reading this, Dallas Cowboys, Notre Dame or the NFL at large that is something you should feel good about it.
The knee injury Smith suffered against Ohio State was no ordinary injury. He suffered tears to the ACL and LCL, as well as significant nerve damage. He went from a player considered a lock to be a top 5 pick in the 2016 NFL Draft to one teams weren’t sure they should draft at all. The Cowboys gambled, taking Smith in the second round, 34th overall.
Sunday, the Cowboys might begin to reap the benefits of that gamble. With starting middle linebacker Anthony Hitchens out with an injury, Smith is expected to start for Dallas.
“I’m ready to play,” Smith said this week. “Ready to play, whatever the plan is. I’m looking forward to it. I’m ready.”
How amazing is it that Smith has returned to a physical level where being a successful NFL player is a reasonable expectation? For a medical opinion on Smith, we turned to former Big Blue View contributor “Invictus.” That’s because he is actually “Dr. Invictus,” having gone on to bigger and better things. Anyway, here is what he told us about Smith:
Jaylon Smith was an absolute stud for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Unfortunately, a knee injury in the final game of his collegiate career cost him millions in the NFL draft. The Dallas Cowboys ended his draft slide in the second round. Was that the right move? Let's take a closer look at Smith's injury:
After a shove from an Ohio State lineman, Smith's foot awkwardly planted into the ground. The weight of his body went directly downwards as his knee bent anteriorly (forwards) and laterally (outward). There are four ligaments that essentially hold the knee together, the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) which is in front, the posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) in the back, the medial cruciate ligament (MCL) on the inside and finally the lateral cruciate ligament (LCL) on the outside. They form a diamond of sorts inside the knee, and the way Smith's knee bent, he tore two of them - the ACL and the LCL. That in itself is a pretty big injury, but not career threatening. He had both of those ligaments repaired soon after the hit. The problem was a nerve, more specifically, the peroneal nerve, runs along the passage way through the knee where Smith suffered the injury. The problem is that the nerve was severed.
That's a pretty big deal. The peroneal nerve has several functions. It controls dorsiflexion, which is the ability to point your foot and your toes up. It also provides sensation to the front and side parts of your leg. That might not seem super-important, but think of it this way — every time you walk, your foot dorsiflexes. That means that Smith suffered something called foot drop. You walk with a limp; which is obviously a no-go for an NFL player.
Can the nerve regenerate? In most cases, it will; especially with extensive rehab. How long will it take? It really depends on the individual. Remember Peyton Manning's neck injury? It took about a year and a half for his nerve in his throwing arm to regenerate. Jaylon Smith showed huge progress in the off-season and was able to get some game time in the preseason and looked good. He was no longer wearing a splint on his leg, which is a sign that he's getting feeling back and his foot drop is resolving. Nerve injury also affects the muscle around it, however. There's no telling if Smith's nerve will fully recover to pre-hit levels and that will affect his explosion and ability to move laterally. In addition, his tearing of his knee ligaments makes him more prone to doing it again. It's entirely possible that Jaylon Smith gets to only about 85-90 percent of what he was as a college player.
Fortunately for the Cowboys, however, an 85 percent Jaylon Smith is probably still better than a lot of starting linebackers in this league.
So, what kind of player is Smith right now? If he isn’t the player he was at Notre Dame, how close is he? How close can he eventually get? Here is Dave Halprin of SB Nation’s Dallas web site Blogging The Boys on that question:
His comeback is remarkable, there were definitely times that made you think he may not ever play again. But he was emphatic that he would come back and he did everything he needed to in rehabbing the injury, his will and work ethic are impressive. As for his play, it has been good so far. It hasn't been great like what you would have expected from him pre-injury, but he's a quality linebacker out there and he should only get better as he learns how to play with his current physical abilities. My guess is his impact will grow as the season goes on, they will likely spell him with Justin Durant for the immediate future so they won't overtax him since he's been out of football for a while. He might make a play or two, but it will probably be a while before he can really become an impact player.
The longer I write about the Giants, the NFL and the players who play this brutal, unforgiving game, the more I’m reminded that they are just people. People with hopes, dreams, doubts and frailties, just like the rest of us. The devastating injury Smith suffered might mean he will never reach the heights that were once forecast for him. Beginning Sunday, though, he will get to live the dream of being an NFL player that he spent much of his life working for.
That is something worth celebrating.