Sean Lee: When A Dallas Cowboys Favorite Loses Star Power


It started to rain at FedEx Field. The sky was gray. The seats were wet.

Football fans arrived. They walked down flights of steps to find their seats. Some dressed in blue. Some dressed in burgundy. Some had hot dogs in their mouths.

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The Dallas Cowboys were visiting the Washington Redskins. A Dallas Week 16 win of the 2013 season kept the Cowboys in the playoff hunt, and promised a shot to duke it out with the Philadelphia Eagles one week later at AT&T Stadium for the division.

I looked down at my watch. I wiped the rain and fog off. Game time was at 1PM. I arrived early to watch players warm up. When I wiped off my watch again, the crowd around me started to jump and yell.

Middle linebacker Sean Lee was walking towards our end of the field with a cold demeanor on his face. He was dressed in sweats, gloves, a t-shirt, and a Dallas Cowboys cap. A man half his size, sporting a beard, also wearing Dallas Cowboys apparel, watched over Lee as he warmed up.

Lee was banged up two weeks earlier against the Chicago Bears in a 28-45 loss. The six-foot-two, former second-round pick out of Penn State wouldn’t play a down of football against the Redskins that day, or the following 2014 season (He tore his ACL on May 27th, 2014). But on Washington turf, watching Lee warm up that day, you wouldn’t know that he was on the injury list.

His eyes beamed forward as he launched his hands into the empty air, pretending to make contact with a phantom. His feet shuffled. He back pedaled. He stretched. Lee went through the motions without dropping an ounce of intensity; it was almost like he believed he was practicing to play.

Hoping to get his attention, a fan called out his name repeatedly. The linebacker was in a zone. His zone. His eyes glowed like red hot laser from Superman in the movies. Lee did the fan a favor by not looking up. He did all of us in the stands a favor.

As I watched Lee, shifting side-to-side, running around the field chasing ghosts, I couldn’t help but wish he could play. Dallas needed him. They always needed him. Lee was literally the center of the defense. He was the signal caller, the “Mike.” He was the backbone that corrected the posture in the defense.

But Lee, as good as he was, is the “what if” type of player. What if Lee played 16 games a season? What if Lee was playing when the defense looked comical? Nobody denies Lee’s talent. But nobody denies his injuries, either. Including Sean Lee.

In five seasons as a pro, Lee played in 46 regular season games. He missed 34 games during that span of five years, which adds up to two regular seasons plus two games.

I looked down at my watch. I used my finger to wipe the fog again. Game time was near. The wide receivers group started to make their way out of the tunnel. Dallas fans stood and started to cheer. The stadium was getting louder. The fans were settled, and ready for the game to start.

Bright white uniforms stood out in the stadium of burgundy and gold. The two stars on the silver helmet muted the gray sky and mist in the air. As the wideouts, led out by Dez Bryant, made their way towards our end of the field, Lee was leaving it. Within moments, he disappeared into the sidelines next to crowds wearing street clothes.

His time on the field was over.


I must confess, when I started writing this piece on Sean Lee, I planned to approach this with the idea that the Dallas Cowboys didn’t need the middle linebacker. That his best days were behind him, and the Cowboys were better off without the injured prone star.

But I couldn’t fill up the empty white space. This rough draft sat for weeks. The empty white space stretched for miles it seemed.

The truth: the Cowboys need Lee.

Dallas has lost many key defensive players in the 2015 free agency, including Bruce Carter (LB), Justin Durant (LB),  Henry Melton (DT), and recently George Selvie (DE) to the New York Giants.

Middle linebacker Rolando McClain, Lee’s replacement in 2014, is still a free agent. Dallas recently made a splash by signing Greg Hardy (DE), but he’s expected to miss multiple games.

If returning defensive guru Rod Marinelli can spice up average players, what could he do with someone like Lee? A healthy Lee? One capable of 16 games?

As feisty and above average the defense was in 2014, adding Lee to the mix in 2015 can only help. The defense lacked Lee’s intensity and focus. The Cowboys struggled against tight-end coverage, and pressure from linebackers on blitz packages wasn’t scaring anybody.

Sure, the defense found a new identity in 2014. But to be fair, the group was always a breath or play away from giving up the big one. It’s not like you can dress up Super Glue and Band-Aids.

This is where Lee comes in.

To start the fire. To push the average towards the top-tier. Of course, this hinges on a healthy Lee, who turns 29 in July.

One can only hope that his time on the field is about to start again. This time around, though, with him wearing a helmet.

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