For everyone who cares about the Dallas Cowboys, works for the team in some capacity or loyally follows the every move of this organization, Tuesday, May 27th felt like deja vu. Here was the team, back on the field together for the first Organized Team Activity of 2014 and there, on that same field, in a crumbled heap was the season for LB Sean Lee. Again. It could have been November 10, 2013 or December 9, 2013 or October 21, 2012. The date doesn’t matter. The result is the same. Another season in which Sean Lee will be wearing street clothes instead of pads and a jersey.
And so the same refrain begins yet again. “Next Man Up.” It seems all to often, this phrase is thrown out there when it comes to the Cowboys, especially the defense. Injuries were on the level of an epidemic last year as over seventeen different people made appearances on the defensive line. The season prior saw devastating injuries to the linebacker corps and secondary as nine defensive players ended the season on injured reserve. This season will mark the third straight year that Sean Lee will not be available for the Cowboys at the end of the year. Deja Vu.
When I first heard the news and there was little being said, I already knew. All it took was to see which player suffered an injury and I was sure it was going to be bad news. With Lee, it’s always something. Left knee (now twice), right knee, hamstring, neck, shoulder, wrist, toe. Lee is running out of body parts that have not kept him from missing a game, let alone multiple games. It’s sad, but it’s true. The unfortunate part in all of this is that we are truly missing out on watching a highly-skilled, extremely talented player get to his job. Facts are facts however, and the fact remains that Sean Lee is simply unreliable.
So, what do the Cowboys do?
For the short-term, it appears that Dallas is going to attempt to spread its already thin linebacker unit and experiment with different in-house options to fill the void. DeVonte Holloman, Justin Durant and rookie fourth round pick Anthony Hitchens will all get an opportunity to be the answer. Holloman has the best chance to take over the gig as he did have some experience last year when Lee went down and played decently. Regardless, Hitchens should also see significant playing time at this spot too.
If neither of these options appear to work out well for the Cowboys, it would not be an absolute shock to see them bring in a veteran during training camp. Hopefully, it does not come to that however because you would like to see one of the young guys take the reins. There also are not a lot of choices out there as far as veterans are concerned and the ones that are available all come with issues which is why they’re available in the first place.
Long term is another story altogether.
As great of a player as Lee is when he is on the field, the issue is that he isn’t on the field as much as he should be. Thankfully, the Cowboys counterbalanced the dumb move of giving Lee an unnecessary extension by at least protecting themselves by installing playing time clauses into the contract. Since he will miss all of 2014, Lee will not see a penny of the $1.5 million bonus he was scheduled to received next year. This bonus was only in play if he played in 80% of the teams games in 2013 and this coming season. The injury will also protect the Cowboys beyond next season as that 80% threshold is in play for future seasons 2016-2019 as well. Since Lee missed five games last season and will miss all sixteen this year, he will total only 34% (11 out of 32) of games played in the previous two years.
Even if Lee never misses another game as a Cowboy (which would be amazing… and unbelievable), he’ll have no chance to ever cash in on bigger bonuses down the road. Calculate sixteen games played next season (27 out of 48) and 2016 (43 out of 64), Lee still falls well short of the 80% stipulation, as that would only be 67%. Two more hypothetically injury free seasons in 2017 and 2018 STILL leave him short as that would only get him to 78%. Because of this structuring of his contract, the Cowboys end up coming out ahead either way. One side of the coin represents Lee never missing another game which is clearly good for Dallas and if that happens, they will owe him nothing extra.
Alas, the likelihood of that happening is slim and none. Reality dictates we’ll probably be talking about another Sean Lee injury sometime in 2015 or 2016. If that’s the case, the Cowboys have a different difficult decision to make and that is whether or not to just move on completely and release him. Hopefully, it does not come to that, but ultimately, that may just be what’s in the stars for Sean Lee. He may just be that ultimate “if only” guy which would truly be the saddest part to this whole situation.