Aldon Smith is back. No, I don’t simply mean he’s reinstated and able to play football, which is an achievement in and of itself when considering all he’s struggled with the past decade. What I mean is he’s back, as in back to wrecking opposing offenses. Yes, the Dallas Cowboys were on the losing side of a 20-17 final against the Los Angeles Rams in the opener at SoFi Stadium, but the arena wasn’t the only thing shining on Sunday Night Football. 

After having not taken a single NFL snap since 2015, Smith made his presence felt — helping give the Cowboys a chance to steal the win before a controversial offensive pass interference call assassinated their hopes. The All-Pro pass rusher logged a team-best 11 tackles (tied with linebacker Jaylon Smith), two quarterback hits, one tackle for loss and took down Jared Goff to grab his first sack of the season, and the lone sack of the day for the Cowboys. Smith had a tremendous camp that led Dak Prescott to label him a “monster”, and now the world sees why such praise was filtering out of Dallas in August.

It’s because Smith looks like the version of himself who was once the most dominant edge rusher in the league.

“I thought he played at an extremely high level.,” head coach Mike McCarthy told media following the game. “Aldon played extremely well. Thought that coming off the field, but definitely it was reflected with the video. He plays with incredible power, strength, but you can see just a couple of things he needs to get back into and that’s just rust that needs to be knocked off.

“He’ll continue to do that. … I thought Aldon put together a fine, excellent performance.”

Mike Nolan agrees, particularly on a day when his newfound Cowboys defense struggled on the whole to stop the Rams. 

“I would say at times he could actually dominate the point of attack,” he said of Smith. “He’s a big, strong man. I would say that would be it. Just his ability to dominate at the point of attack sometimes. 

“That’s rare. That’s not common. Everybody’s a professional athlete in the NFL and everybody’s a good player. But some guys are uniquely strong, and I think he is.”

The sack wasn’t the only impact play made by Smith, as noted above, but one in particular will probably make cornerback Chidobe Awuzie buy him a steak dinner with loaded mashed potatoes. The primary goal of Nolan is to generate intense pressure up front to help force takeaways in the secondary, and he got his wish at least once — nearly twice (i.e., a near-miss from rookie Trevon Diggs) — against the Rams. With the game still very much in grasp and the Rams threatening to move down the field yet again, Smith teleported into Goff’s personal space on a stunt pass rush and forced a bad pass that led to an interception.

Again, this is a player who had been out of the league for 1,764 days. 

Any concerns regarding his conditioning were also put to bed in Week 1, with the 30-year-old taking the field for 54 snaps (74 percent of team defensive total), and that was the highest tally of any defensive lineman on the team. And yet, for all the good Smith did in his first game back, he still feels there’s work to be done.

“I was able to make some plays [but] I also missed some plays,” he told media following the game. “I’m tough on myself, but I did some things well.” 

Quite modest for a person who was mostly destitute not so long ago, due to his battle with addiction.

“I would say 2018 was a tough year,” Smith admitted just after signing with the Cowboys this offseason. “In that year, I was in a really dark place. I didn’t have a lot of value for how I thought about myself. When I was in the bad spot, it got pretty bad. 

“I was sleeping under a car for some nights because my sickness took me there. And I had a home to sleep in. But I was in such a dark place that I didn’t see myself deserving anything other than that.”

One of the league’s goals in reinstating Smith was to have him serve as a beacon and testimony to those fighting addiction and for their mental health, as the NFL works to shift from its traditional heavy-handed (read: iron fist) approach to substance abuse to more of a support-laden approach. And for anyone who’s followed Smith’s progress over the summer and/or saw what he did in Week 1 against the Rams, it’s safe to say he’s taking full advantage of what might ultimately be his last chance to reach the pinnacle of what was always a promising football career.

He’s still fighting the war, but thus far Smith is winning every battle since being allowed back in the NFL trenches. 

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