While the performance of the Dallas Cowboys against the Carolina Panthers was hugely disappointing, it didn’t come as a total shock. From the struggles of an offensive line that has a rookie, Connor Williams, and a backup, Joe Looney, as starters, to the same struggles from Dak Prescott that we saw in the latter half of last season, to a bunch of new receivers that didn’t click all that well, to another questionable game called by offensive coordinator Scott Linehan - it was suggested that any of these things, or all of them, could happen. But there was one totally unexpected thing in the game, and it happened on the defense, which otherwise played a very good game that should have been enough to win.
Sean Lee had one of the worst games of his career.
His struggles went far beyond just the scant numbers of plays he made. There were plays where he seemed to lose track of where the ball was and went the wrong way. He had more players just run through his attempt at a tackle than I can remember in any previous season, much less one game. At times, he just seemed confused. And based on defensive production, he was outplayed by rookie Leighton Vander Esch (although LVE came in late with fresh legs, which may have helped his output). This is not the Sean Lee we have seen previously. He has a reputation for being one of the smartest players on the field, diagnosing the opponents play before the snap and flowing through the wash of players to make the tackle.
It was just one game, of course, and he vows to do better.
Sean Lee: "I usually tackle well and I work on it every day in practice. I just did not get it done. I am going to have to get better this week. That is unacceptable tackling I did today."— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) September 10, 2018
Now, a betting man would be inclined to put money on Lee coming back and being much more the player we have seen for nine seasons (when healthy). Still, after watching him look like far less than the player he was just last season, when he led the team in tackles by a wide margin, you start to wonder. Has the undefeated Father Time finally started to catch up with him?
Lee is 32, and that is pretty much early-old-age in the NFL. Normally, you see a more gradual decline as players get past 30, but sometimes the drop-off can be precipitous. If that has happened with him there were no signs of it in training camp that anyone reported. He still seemed to move well during the Panthers debacle.
What is most troubling is how he just didn’t seem to read what was happening. That would be the hardest thing to understand, because the usual case for aging players is that their body cannot keep up with what their mind is telling it to do, not the opposite.
There is not enough data to draw any real conclusions after just one game. If he does rebound well and start putting up the numbers we have seen so often before, then this will fade quickly from our minds.
But it does bring up another thing, and that is whether he will play out his contract, which ends next year. If he does struggle as the season goes on, the Cowboys may do something we once thought unthinkable, and release him. That is what happened to Dez Bryant and Dan Bailey, two players most of us thought were untouchable. Although it would come with a dead money hit of a touch over $3 million, it would also create $7 million more in cap space. And with DeMarcus Lawrence getting off to a strong start and in line for a huge new deal, the team may see that as as worth it.
And to be honest, the team may not be left with the choice. If Lee does not get back to his own high standard of performance, he may elect to pull the plug himself and retire. This could also be influenced if he has more injury issues this year, something he has frequently suffered through over his career.
Please understand that this is not meant to advocate his career ending before his current contract. Lee has been an outstanding player for almost a decade when he was not sidelined. His ability to get the defense lined up is also extremely valuable, and something that Vander Esch or any of the rest of the linebacking corps is not going to be able to do as well, at least anytime soon. The team needs him - if he can return to what he has been for so long.
But looking at how badly he performed, the only defender who stood out for poor execution on so many plays, you have to consider that the end of his time as the on-field general for the Cowboys defense may be drawing close, and much faster than anyone expected. It is not a happy thought, especially when there are so many other big issues facing Dallas.
It just is one that is very hard to avoid.