Sean Lee is among the best linebackers in the NFL.
The fact that this is even an argument that can be made is something that has been hard-earned by Lee. The former second-round pick out of Penn State showed promise early on in his career, but injuries continued to find a way to derail season after season for him.
These last two seasons have been different, though. Lee played in 14 out of 16 games in 2015 and earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl. Last season he played every game save for the regular season finale (most starters rested) and returned to Hawaii while adding a First-Team All-Pro honor to his resume.
If there was ever a time to believe, it was coming off of last season. Things had essentially come together, a full materialization, and a healthy Sean Lee was indisputably the best defensive player on the Cowboys.
We wanted to believe. In fact, I did believe. Considering the wealth of talent Sean Lee has, it made absolute sense to believe. The best defensive player on the team had finally put it together in back-to-back seasons, it was finally time to trust.
Here we sit, though. It’s mid-November, the Cowboys have played in nine games, and Sean Lee has essentially missed three of them (all Cowboys losses).
Besides the third of the season he’s already missed, Lee is slated to miss the next few games as well. The Cowboys took off the training wheels, and now they’ve forgotten how to ride a bike. Their defense is predicated on Sean Lee operating it, and he can’t manage to stay on the field.
Just for clarity, here are some stats illustrating the difference with Lee and without Lee in 2017. Opposing quarterbacks have a passer rating of 85.6 with Lee and 107.8 without Lee. Opposing offenses average 3.5 yards per rushing attempt with Lee but over 5.5 yards per rushing attempt without Lee.
Unfortunately, we’ve seen this story before.
Once upon a time the Dallas Cowboys offense was totally and completely dependent on quarterback Tony Romo. In 2015 when he broke his collarbone, coincidentally the first season which allowed us to believe in Lee, the engine was yanked out of the car. Dallas couldn’t move, they were left inept.
As we would learn across a very painful season, the Cowboys weren’t prepared for life without Romo. They were all-in on him and his greatness, leaving them helpless in his absence.
Two years later, on the opposite side of the ball, here we are again. Sean Lee is the new Tony Romo.
The greatest effort the Cowboys made to hedge their Sean Lee bet was the drafting of Jaylon Smith in the second round of 2016. A second-rounder sounds like solid insurance in theory, but when he’s dealing with one of the more insurmountable medical hurdles the league has ever seen, not so much.
Unlike Romo, there are no doubters to Lee’s game. It’s universally acknowledged how much his presence alone contributes to the Dallas Cowboys defense as a whole.
Amazingly though, the Cowboys are not prepared for his absence. It made sense for us to believe, and it made sense for them to as well, but it also made sense to establish a failsafe sort of option and they didn’t.
The Cowboys managed to luck their way into an answer for their lack of preparation for life after Tony Romo when they drafted Dak Prescott. While Dak is built like a linebacker, the linebacker version of him isn’t on this team.
Until he is, the Cowboys will be at a place with Sean Lee that they were with Tony Romo for so long. They’ll be living on a prayer that he manages to make it through, despite every point of data that told them to prepare ahead of time.