During OTAs in 2014, Sean Lee would tear his ACL after newcomer and resident meanie-pants, Zack Martin, threw a block that planted him into the ground. Lee would miss the entire 2014 season, forcing the Cowboys to go out and trade a late-round draft pick to acquire wild card linebacker, Rolando McClain. Without Lee, the Cowboys would go 12-4 and reach the playoffs. Without Lee, the Cowboys linebackers would intercept the ball nine times, including a remarkably athletic catch by McClain that is one of the best picks I have ever seen by a linebacker. And without the services of their best defensive player, the defense would still take the ball way 31 times.
To recap, without Lee in 2014:
- The Cowboys win 12 games.
- The Cowboys LB group had nine picks.
- The Cowboys defense finish second in the league in takeaways with 31.
Now in 2015, Lee made his triumphant return and played in 14 games, which is the most he’s played in since 2011 when he first took over a starting spot on the team. The result?
- The Cowboys win 4 games.
- The Cowboys LB group had two picks (one by Lee, one by McClain).
- The Cowboys defense finished dead last in takeaways with only 11.
Now, everyone knows that Sean Lee makes this defense better. The Pro Bowl linebacker is the leader of the defense. His instincts and athletic ability, commitment to film study and hard work, and leadership ability are the reasons the team took a chance on the linebacker from Penn State. And what makes him even more valuable is that he's a team-first player. Lee watched quietly as $2 million slipped out of his fingers when the team made him inactive because of injury for the final game of the 2015 season. This meant he didn't reach his playing time incentive, but Sean Lee never said a peep. Not even the slightest hint of disappointment was expressed by the Cowboys star linebacker.
The Cowboys suffered greatly last year, but it was the result of losing Tony Romo for most of the season. Over the last two seasons, the Cowboys have played one season without their most important defensive player, and the other one without their most important offensive player.
In 2016, they could have them both.
The concern over either of these to losing time due to injury is something that will stay will us throughout every single play of the upcoming season (excluding hand-offs or any special team’s plays). While we will all be on pins and needles, there is a chance that both of these players stay healthy. There is a chance that the 2014 offense gets mixed in with the 2015 defense and they collectively combine for some real good football.
And those results could be magical. We all know the Cowboys will run the ball a lot in 2016 as that is their identity. Despite all the differences from last season and 2014, the running game is the one constant. They run. They run some more. And then, they keep running. In 2014, the offense helped keep the defense off the field. But last season, they did that as well.
- In 2014, the defense played 978 snaps.
- In 2015, the defense played 997 snaps.
While the defense is playing essentially the same amount of snaps, they aren’t playing the same "type" of snaps. The Cowboys played a great majority of the season from behind. Bob Sturm wrote a piece a few weeks ago where he provided a couple little nuggets of data:
- In 2014, the Cowboys played with a lead of four points or more 49% of the time.
- In 2015, the same situation only occurred 16% of the time.
When teams are behind, they have to be more aggressive and take chances. That’s exactly what their opponents did in 2014 and what they didn’t do last season. If the offense can get going again, it’s going to mean good things for the defense. And the offense has a lot of things going for them that could should put more points on the board, particularly – Tony, Dez, and Zeke.
And when you combine Sean Lee with the 2014 defensive opportunities, it’s going to make them that much better. The Cowboys got a taste of this when they played the Philadelphia Eagles in week two last year. This was one of the rare opportunities the Cowboys got to play with the lead and sure enough, Lee was there to get an interception. (Note: the other LB pick also occurred when the Cowboys had the lead, when McClain had a pick-six against Miami in week 11).
Sean Lee does all the right things on the field, but the thing that makes him so special is that he's a playmaker. He has a nose for taking the ball away, but he also has a tendency to make the most out of those picks.
Lee played in 14 games last year which is only three less than the total amount he’s played in the previous three seasons combined. The health of Lee could be just be some good fortune. Or it could be some combination of moving him to weak-side linebacker and the improvement to the interior line. Add Cedric Thornton to the mix and the pieces are in place for more good health for Lee.
The Cowboys have a lot of different reasons to be hopeful this season. And the chance to have both their offensive and defensive leaders suiting up on Sundays is a big one. If you were excited about the return of Lee last year, just hit the reset button and regenerate that same excitement. Many of us have said that if Lee could just stay healthy, he’d be a Pro Bowler. That proved to be true last year. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. With a more opportunistic defense, he could be so much more.