The Cowboys drearily sauntered off of the gridiron at MetLife stadium after a razor-thin 23-19 collapse to the New York Giants on Jan. 3. It would be the last time they exited the football field for the 2020-21 campaign.
But for one man, it could possibly be the final curtain call to what’s been a long career as a member of the silver and blue. That man is Sean Lee.
The undisputed, standalone locker-room general has called on-field shots for the ‘Boys defensive brigade for years; this past season marking his 11th as a member of the franchise (he missed the full 2014 outing due to an ACL tear). And he’s earned his keep as a near player-coach for the squad, although injuries have significantly derailed his production capabilities as far as the former is concerned.
But that hasn’t kept him from making an impact in a variety of other areas for his team, and his presence reeks of an immeasurable invisibility that stretches far beyond the yard-markers. It was felt almost immediately upon his arrival.
Lee was Jerry Jones’ second-round selection in the 2010 NFL Draft after adding numerous awards to his trophy case as a member of the Penn State Nittany Lions, including a slew of Big Ten Player of the Week nominations.
The majority of his snaps were spent at outside linebacker in Joe Paterno’s regime, but defensive coordinator Rob Ryan saw a fleet-footed dexterity and sharp IQ in Lee that would’ve been underserved had he been limited to one position. So Ryan turned him loose.
Lee was a full-on unicorn the first year he donned the star, shuffling throughout various slots in a 3-4 system that predominantly relied on playmaking amongst each member of the linebacking corp. It was in that system that he earned his first starting role as a sophomore – which quickly evolved into a starring one as his undeniable leadership qualities propelled him to the team’s alpha signal-caller.
He racked up tackles by the dozens, usurping the 100 total mark (104) in just his second year, all the while shocking fans by amassing four interceptions, tying him with Terence Newman for the team’s high.
The two men, along with sack-savant DeMarcus Ware, rapidly formed a chemistry-infused three-headed monster that Dallas hoped could withstand innumerable offensive foes as they embarked on their championship quest.
They would quickly be put to the test soon thereafter, though.
Lee suffered the first of his many professional injuries in his third go-round. Like a thoroughbred racehorse, he blasted out of the gates once again, tracking down countless ball-carriers and clogging passing lanes en route to an outlying team-high 58 tackles. An awkward collision with Eagles QB Michael Vick in the year’s seventh game resulted in Lee’s forced resignation to the sideline after dislocating his wrist on impact.
The next season brought more obstacles to hurdle over. A changing of the guard at the helm saw Ryan ousted in favor of Monte Kiffin, who implemented his own 4-3 style that forced Lee to hurriedly adapt on the fly. He was more than up to the task, and reignited the sparks he had fired off before hitting the injury shelf, registering 99 combined takedowns, and – for the second time – a team-leading four interceptions, a near unheard of accomplishment for a linebacker.
The showing got Lee paid, to the tune of a massive six-year, $42 million contract extension that included a $10 million bonus just for signing his name on the dotted line.
The celebratory toasts would be short-lived though.
His career has been a roller-coaster rife with twists, turns and incomparable inversions, and it hit a rocky ravine right after he signed: Lee tore his ACL in non-contact OTA’s, putting an abrupt halt to his 2014 season.
But he’s never been one to let outside circumstances define him, and he took the reigns of his production right back into his own hands the next two seasons. He posted a whopping 128 tackles in 2015, followed by 145 in 2016, which earned him consecutive Pro Bowl appearances, and a coveted First-Team All-Pro selection in ‘16.
Lee started 29 of 32 games throughout the two-year onslaught, but his potency began to undergo a steep slide as age, and ailments, began to catch up to him. 2017 was the last campaign he was able to reach 100 tackles, doing so in just 11 games. But he only played in seven (starting in five) the following year, and while 2019 saw a Lee appearance in all 16 matchups, his resurgence wasn’t substantial, and his on-field time dwindled to just two starts this past season as body abrasions continued to hamper his health.
His love for football, though, remains fortified even as his body fails him.
Lee will be a free agent this upcoming offseason, but all inklings seem to point towards a desired return to the playing field.
On his potential future with the ‘Boys, he had this to say:
“You kind of go back and forth on things at times as you get older, but the problem is any time I go on the field and I get to play, and you make a couple of plays, you’re like, ‘Well, I like this too much. And that is my problem: I love this game too much. I love this organization a lot. And I love playing and I love playing the position, linebacker. I joke to my wife that I’m addicted to it at times.
Recent trends indicate that Lee’s addiction to the game may be better served on the coaching sidelines. Ultimately, though, that ball will be in his court as to whether he plays or hangs up his cleats.
But if this is the end of the relationship between #50 and the Dallas star, then his legacy is assuredly cemented: he’s one of the most-talented Cowboys linebackers to ever lace ‘em up.