Column: Cowboys gamble on a bad knee instead of a bad actor

If you had a nickel for every time someone in the front office of a pro sports team said ''We're not running a charity here,'' you'd barely have enough to cover the cost of a ''Happy Meal.''

But it's not how many times you hear the sentiment expressed that makes it memorable. It's how often it's invoked by teams to avoid drafting or hanging onto players with hard-luck injuries or heartbreaking setbacks in their recent pasts. And while some franchises are willing to roll the dice occasionally on bad characters, bad knees used to be a different story

That's what made the Dallas Cowboys' pick of Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith early in Friday night's second round of the NFL draft - No. 34 overall - something special. You only had to see him celebrate with family and friends (watch it here: http://bit.ly/1NHEfRz ) to know how special. Ditto for the Jacksonville Jaguars; selection of UCLA linebacker Myles Jack two picks later.

Smith and Jack are arguably the two best linebackers leaving the college ranks and both are struggling with bad knees. But because of improvements in surgical techniques and successful rehab stints by players like the Rams' Todd Gurley, knee injuries have become the pro football equivalent of ''Tommy John surgery.''

Some players do make it back from injuries that only a handful of years ago were guaranteed to be career-ending. Smith promised to add his name to that list.

''It's been the most challenging time of my life, but at the same time it's been the best time of my life where my dream has just come true,'' he said. ''I've been wanting to play in the NFL since I was 7 years old.''

Between the two, Smith suffered the more serious injury. He tore both the ACL and MCL in his right knee during the Irish loss to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl - on a block by former Buckeye and newly minted Detroit Lion tackle Taylor Decker. Otherwise, chances are good Smith, a consensus All-American in 2015, would have been not just a first-rounder, but one of the first players taken - period.

Following surgery in January, however, Smith is a possible red shirt for the entire 2016 season, even if he insisted otherwise.

''Absolutely,'' he said.

Just don't bet on it.

The one apparent advantage in the Cowboys' selection of Smith is that their team doctor, Dan Cooper, performed the surgery. But while he may know more about the ligament injuries, he also knows that the peroneal nerve - also damaged in the collision - could require as much as 15 months to fully regenerate.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly called Smith the best player he ever coached and that he'd ''be picked higher than people think.'' Yet plenty teams erased him from their selection boards entirely and more than a few draftniks had Smith languishing until the fourth round.

Considering the Cowboys had other needs on defense, cbssports.com got it exactly right by calling Smith's selection ''the kind of thing you can do as a GM if you know the owner's not going to fire you, which is obviously the case in Dallas, where Jerry Jones is the owner and the GM.''

So maybe defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli wasn't afraid to join Jones out on that limb, crowing, ''we got one of the best players in the draft.

''Obviously there is patience and all those things that go with that,'' Marinelli added, ''but he is well worth it.''

As noted above, we'll see. But just the fact that the Cowboys were willing to take the chance with their second-round pick suggests how much times have changed.

Those who remember the movie ''North Dallas Forty'' might also remember the scene in which one of the players on the fictional North Dallas Bulls - played by the late John Matuszak, a two-time Super Bowl-winning defensive tackle and certified troublemaker - has had enough of the hypocrisy practiced by the team's front office. He finally calls over an assistant coach and explodes:

''Every time I call it a game, you call it a business. And every time I call it a business, you call it a game.''

Don't kid yourself. The Cowboys didn't pick Smith this early out of compassion. It was a calculated, cold-blooded business decision, an attempt to get a potential franchise defender at a cost few of their rivals were willing to consider.

But that risk-reward quotient makes the odds they'll be successful every bit as entertaining to watch as the most suspenseful games of chance.

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and Twitter.com/JimLitke.

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