Tony Romo and company have to step things up now. - Streeter Lecka
The Dallas Cowboys' challenges just got a lot more significant with the loss of Sean Lee for the season. Whatever hope the team has for this year now rests on the ability of the coaches and the players to step up and surmount these difficulties.
In the somewhat emotionally overheated universe of those who follow the Dallas Cowboys, this week started off badly enough. Despite eking out a road win over the Carolina Panthers, there was widespread sentiment that the season is pretty much over because of the narrow margin of victory over a team perceived to be much less capable than the Cowboys. Dallas already was facing some serious injury problems with Phil Costa and DeMarco Murray out for at least the upcoming New York Giants game, and Chris Jones going on IR. Now news that budding superstar linebacker Sean Lee is going to miss the rest of the season has induced widespread depression and just made the conviction held by many that the 2012 Cowboys are going nowhere even stronger.
Well, speaking just for myself, I don't want to hear that crap. This is football, where large men run into each other as hard as they can on almost every play, and injuries are going to happen. A team is not one or two superstars. It is 53 men, some of who are likely going to get replaced during the course of a season. You play the 45 people on your active roster each week.
Is the season going to be harder now? Yes, of course it is. Is it over? Not hardly. Do the Cowboys have any chance of beating the Giants? Of course they do. It is tougher now, but they are still a bunch of professional athletes and a coaching staff that is going to show up on Sunday and put their best effort into winning this game.
The Cowboys are already making the adjustments, of course. One of the problems was already fixed, with the pickup of Brian Moorman to cover for Jones. Moorman, who is a twelve year veteran, was cut by Buffalo apparently because of his age. With Jones likely to be back next season, Moorman is a great acquisition to finish out the year. He is booming the punts just like he always has, with a 42.3 net average on his 7 punts so far this year, and a paltry 12 yards total in returns.
Of course, the punter is a minor consideration. The other players are seen as much more serious concerns. But it's possible that the team can survive.
Costa, who had come back at center stronger than ever, is going to be missed up front, but the team has already seen Ryan Cook, and he came in against Carolina and didn't fail. The performance of the offensive line is driven more by the teamwork and interactions of the whole unit than any other part of the team on either side of the ball, and they showed some real improvement over the last two games, even after Costa rolled his ankle. Tony Romo has gotten pretty decent protection, and the big question mark seems to be the running game.
Jones has had issues with a knee injury and his absence is likely just an opportunity for him to rest it.
This does put extra pressure on the other running backs, Phillip Tanner and Lance Dunbar. Tanner got the most work of his brief career with the Cowboys last week, and although he did not gain many yards, he did have one important run.
Backup Felix Jones injured his knee in Sunday's 19-14 victory over Carolina, which opened the door for Tanner to log a career-high 13 carries against the Panthers, including a key fourth-quarter trap play that set up the Cowboys' go-ahead field goal.
Both Tanner and Dunbar are ready to do what they can to help the team. Dunbar is especially intriguing, since he is an unknown, but he showed some ability on his one run this season, picking up 11 yards. It is likely to be a committee approach until Murray gets back, but that is not the end of the world in the NFL.
Which takes us to the big one. Sean Lee is not just a starter, but in his third year is acknowledged as one of the elite linebackers in the NFL. His loss is seen as a huge blow, one of the worst things that could happen to the team.
Sure, new schemes will be drawn up and a variety of linebackers will take his spot in different packages. But the production the Cowboys received out of their premier inside linebacker, who's now out for the season with a toe injury, can't and won't be replaced.
Jerry Jones talked about how his contributions to the team goes beyond just his physical talent.
"That's a setback," Jones said. "He's not only a setback after the ball is snapped, but before the ball is snapped. The old adage that, ‘Well, it'll give somebody else a chance to show what they got,' doesn't necessarily apply here because he's a proven difference-maker out there."
The team can't replace Lee. But it has to find a way to adjust and adapt to his absense. And it certainly can't just roll over and tell the other three teams in the NFC East to fight it out for the playoffs.
Among some other moves, the team signed Ernie Sims to bolster the linbeacking corps. While he has had a career that can best be described as checkered, he does fit into an overall scheme to restructure things in Lee's absense. Bruce Carter will play the stong side and call the signals, with Dan Connor on the weak side. Orie Lemon will spell them as needed, and it is likely that Alex Albright will also get some snaps on the inside. Meanwhile, Sims will probably take Connor's place on special teams to keep from overworking him. Sims is certainly glad to have another chance to redeem what has been seen as a largely wasted career so far.
How will it all work? Well, the team held things together when Lee went out against Carolina. The Giants are a better team, of course, but they can be beaten. It is certainly tougher now, but not impossible.
No one can be blamed for feeling some pessimism, of course. Even Jerry Jones is backing off somewhat on his earlier remarks about the team being able to win the Super Bowl.
"Against this team (the Giants), by many and arguably the best team in the NFL, we wanted all hands on deck," Jones said. "It is disappointing not to have two players (Lee and Murray) of that caliber. I've said all along I think this team has an opportunity to be a contender but the one exception that I made was ... sitting as we're sitting right now health wise, injury can make a difference and does in the NFL. It's been my experience when you do have a situation like this, others will step up. Others on the field at different positions will compensate."
But Jones has not given up, and after talking about Lee, he gave an explanation of his style, couched in Las Vegas betting terms, that reveals a lot about how he does things.
"Picture going to Las Vegas and putting an inordinate amount on the table with every hand or with every throw. We do that and I am a part of that. When you do that and you don't have the right hand or win, then you subject yourself to a lot more criticism."
Does Jones ever feel like he needs to pull some of those chips back?
"No," he responded. "That's our style. I have won with that style. I feel we are not in the business ... we are not managing a widow-woman's retirement accounts here. In other words, to compete, I think we need to be aggressive. You play the game, you manage the game that way, you take some risks when they don't pay off (and) they look bad. That has happened. I think that's one of the luxuries of my position as owner as well as the ultimate decision-maker, general manager and president, I can do that and take the losses and come back for more."
While his optimism is tempered, the owner and GM of the Cowboys is still playing to win. And one other person involved in all this has not given up on the Cowboys, and plans to do whatever he can to get the team through all this.
"I'm not getting down, I'm ready to go," Lee told Garrett. "I'm going to be a part of this football team. We're going to get this thing fixed. I'll be back before you know it."
Expect to see Lee acting as an extra coach on the sidelines. It is not nearly as much as he contributed on the field, but it is not negligible.
Look, I am not trying to be all rainbows and unicorns here. Dallas has a major challenge ahead. It will be very difficult. But sometimes, people and teams rise to the occasion. The remaining players are still pros, with pride in themselves. I don't have absolute confidence they can survive this and claw their way into the playoffs. But I still have hope. Until we see this play out on the field on Sunday and for the rest of the season, I will wish for the best.
At heart, I'm just a fan, after all.