As the 2016 season approaches, defense continues to be an area of concern for the Dallas Cowboys. The once vaunted unit was widely recognized as “Doomsday” during the Cowboys’ glory days. Now, the opposition looks at their game schedules like a menu while licking their chops as they gaze upon the Sunday special, the Dallas Cowboys. It is no secret that Dallas Cowboy haters take pleasure in watching a five-time Super Bowl championship franchise experience failure after failure. Losing is a very frustrating thing and Cowboy supporters want answers.
Health Concerns Are Still an Issue for Sean Lee
There is one player who could turn the tide and put the ‘D’ back in the Cowboys’ unheralded defense. His name is Sean Lee. At 6’2″, 238 pounds, the outside linebacker is considered a powerhouse among his peers. Drafted out of Penn State in 2010, Lee has proven to be productive and has become the undisputed leader of the unit when he’s on the field. Unfortunately, health concerns are still an issue for Lee. He has experienced a number of setbacks that have kept him off the field throughout his seven-year career in the NFL.
Lee’s injuries began during spring practice, prior to his junior year in college. Fresh off of a Defensive MVP nod for his performance in Penn State’s Alamo Bowl battle against Texas A&M, Lee tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during a non-contact drill. He was granted status as a medical redshirt for rehab; however, Lee was still selected as a team captain by his teammates. The linebacker embraced the leadership role, opting to serve as an undergraduate assistant coach. He traveled with the team and wore a headset on the sidelines during the 2008 season while continuing to rehab. His commitment to the Nittany Lions established his reputation as a gridiron warrior and has proven him to be an undeniable leader. Consequently, Lee came back from the injury the following season earning the role of team captain.
Another solid campaign put the skillful defender on the map. Despite injuring his other knee, Lee earned his second second-team All-Big Ten selection in 2009. His exhibition at the NFL Combine and his Penn State Pro Day left a few teams excited about the possibility of drafting the top-line defender even with his injury history. Lee’s stock dropped in the draft after suffering injuries to both knees, but the Cowboys must have seen promise in him. In 2010, the team traded up from the 59th position to the 55th and offered the Philadelphia Eagles a fourth-round draft pick to complete the deal.
Lee was selected in the second round and immediately touted as a difference maker who could overcome the setbacks he had experienced at the collegiate level. Former Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips was confident that Lee would embrace the challenge of playing both linebacker spots in a 3-4 defensive scheme. Sadly, Lee was plagued by a number of nagging injuries during training camp that kept him off the field and in the training room.
During the season, Lee played 14 games, earning 32 tackles and a forced fumble. He had a stellar performance against one of the game’s best quarterbacks, Peyton Manning. Lee intercepted Manning twice, returning one of them for a touchdown and setting up the game-winning field goal with the other in overtime. Lee was recognized by the league as both the NFC Defensive Player of the Week and the Pepsi NFL Rookie of the Week for his coming out party. Once again, the play-maker was officially on the map as one of the league’s budding young defensive stars.
He earned the starting job in 2011 and had a productive year under the leadership of former defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s defensive attacking 3-4 scheme. On opening day, Lee grabbed his third interception in a game against the New York Jets. He nabbed another one off of Rex Grossman in a comeback victory against the Washington Redskins. Lee actually became the first Dallas Cowboy to ever earn NFC Player of the Month honors after racking up 36 tackles, 2 interceptions, 2 fumble recoveries, a tackle for a loss, and three pass breakups by the third week of the season. The stud from Penn State was proving himself to be a special player, but low and behold, Lee dislocated his left wrist in Week 7 against the Eagles. His pride wouldn’t allow him to accept season-ending surgery, so he continued to battle. In fact, he would only miss one game that year.
In 2012, Lee was the man once again. He became only the second linebacker to ever intercept both Manning and Tom Brady. He tied a 41-year-old record held by Leroy Jordan when he recorded 14 tackles in a game against the Seattle Seahawks. He had become the primary signal caller on defense and was leading the team in tackles. Lee injured his right big toe against the Carolina Panthers and was placed on injured reserve. The linebacker missed 10 games that season. He returned in 2013 and only missed five games. Lee earned NFC Defensive Player of the Month honors in October due to amazing performances against the Detroit Lions and San Diego Chargers.
Lee went down again during OTAs prior to the 2014 season when an overzealous rookie offensive lineman, Zack Martin, took him to the ground. The star player tore his ACL for a third time and was placed on IR, missing the entire year. He worked tirelessly to return to the field for the 2015 season. When he returned, the team moved him to the weak side as an outside linebacker in a 4-3 alignment. The move was made in an effort to prevent him from taking on offensive linemen and to maximize his play-making ability. Lee flourished, again. He saw action in all but two games, recording 128 tackles, 2.5 sacks, an interception and five passes defensed.
Despite experiencing a poor season, the team has its sight set on rebounding. Lee’s availability will go a long way toward solidifying a defense that had lost its luster until he arrived. The Cowboys haven’t given up hope. In fact, they took a flier on another recently injured prospect during the 2016 NFL Draft. The team selected Notre Dame outside linebacker (Butkus Award winner and All-American) Jaylon Smith in the second round. Smith is coming off of a torn MCL and ACL suffered in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. The rookie isn’t expected to play this year but if he pans out, the combination of him, Lee, and veteran middle linebacker Rolando McClain could bring the Cowboys defense back to the forefront.