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What was and what could have been: A look at Sean Lee’s career

The General is officially hanging it up after an entire career in Dallas.

Dallas Cowboys v Cleveland Browns

With just a few days to go until the start of the draft, linebacker Sean Lee did what most expected and announced his retirement. The decision marked the final note on a career that lasted for 11 seasons but he appeared in just 118 of 176 possible games.

Yes, Lee’s career is impossible to discuss without immediately thinking of his long list of injuries. The 2019 season was the only year in which Lee played a full 16 games, and it was largely due to him playing a rotational role instead of being a full-time starter. Unfortunately, Lee will go down in history alongside the likes of Derrick Rose, Andrew Luck, and Ryan Shazier as athletes who could very well have altered their teams’ fortunes dramatically if they had remained healthy.

Regardless, Lee will always have a special place in Cowboys fans’ hearts. He joined the Cowboys in 2010, a pivotal year for the franchise, as a second-round pick out of Penn State.

Lee had been a star for the Nittany Lions, twice being named to the All-Big Ten second team. However, he tore his ACL ahead of what would have been his senior year in 2008. A medical redshirt allowed Lee to play in 2009 and rebuild his draft stock, but Lee also served as a graduate assistant coach for the team during that 2008 season.

The combination of his ACL recovery in 2009 and the leadership skills that led to him being a coach for a year prompted Dallas to trade up in the draft to select him. The Cowboys, who ran a 3-4 defense under then-head coach Wade Phillips, already featured Bradie James and Keith Broking at inside linebacker, but they felt Lee could become a star in a year or two and replace one of their veteran starters.

Lee wound up seeing the field sparingly during what ended up being a lost year, with Phillips being fired midway through the season and succeeded by Jason Garrett. However, Lee did break out towards the end of the year with two picks on Peyton Manning, one of which he returned for a touchdown.

Lee became the starting inside linebacker heading into 2011 under new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and put up an incredible season. He started 15 games, missing just one with an injury, and played like one of the best linebackers in the NFL. He also became the first Cowboys defender ever to win NFC Defensive Player of the Month.

That’s when the injury concerns really started popping up. Lee got off to a blazing start in 2012 and had tallied 58 tackles through his first six games when he broke his toe and ended his season. Lee returned in 2013, now playing under Monte Kiffin, and had a bit of a comeback year - once again winning a Defensive Player of the Month award - but only managed to play in 11 games due to nagging injuries.

Then, Lee tore his ACL during OTAs in the 2014 offseason after a collision with then-rookie Zack Martin. Lee’s sudden absence for the full year led to the Cowboys luring Rolando McClain out of retirement, who went on to put up a great season of his own.

As a result, Lee moved to WILL linebacker in 2015. The position change was designed to both accommodate McClain at MIKE and reduce Lee’s contact with bigger offensive linemen.

The move ended up working out well. Lee still missed a few games with injuries but he played in 14 games and tallied 128 tackles while also recording his first three sacks in his career. The next season, Lee played in 15 games and upped his tackle total to 145. In both years he was named to the Pro Bowl, and he also earned First-Team All Pro honors in 2016.

For a brief moment it looked like Lee’s career had been revitalized with his position swap and the linebacker was back to his dominant ways. And while Lee put up yet another good year of play in 2017, he was limited to just 11 games. It forced the Cowboys to finally acknowledge the fact that they couldn’t rely on Lee going forward, and linebacker was frequently listed as one of their two biggest needs that offseason. Until, of course, Dallas spent their first-round pick on Leighton Vander Esch, whose impressive rookie year earned him a starting spot as the season went on, relegating Lee to a rotational role.

This was the point where Lee transformed from being the star linebacker who just couldn’t stay healthy into the heart and soul of the team whose greatest impact came in the locker room and film room, which is why many have called for Lee to become a coach in Dallas now that he’s hanging it up. For what it’s worth, the Cowboys are reportedly open to that if Lee is:

But for now, Lee leaves the game with a complicated and bittersweet legacy. Cowboys fans, as well as the more devoted football fans, will remember Lee as the cerebral game-wrecker he was, but the inability to stay healthy prevented Lee from ever truly reaching the kind of national recognition he deserved.

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