Minimizing risk is a prudent strategy in player acquisition. A practiced level of due diligence will be performed by all NFL franchises prior to adding an individual to their roster. Contracts represent significant financial commitment. Talent must be thoroughly vetted and evaluated. Potential character issues have to be identified and considered. Physical conditioning and injury history will be stringently examined.
When the Dallas Cowboys, in April 2010, used a second round pick to draft linebacker Sean Lee it was seen as an acceptable gamble. Prior to his selection Lee had fought through significant injuries to both knees and had missed considerable playing time at the college level. His Penn State career may have been disrupted by injury but he didn’t let it completely derail his experience. Lee was able to integrate a role as an undergraduate coach with his ongoing rehab work. He continued to be around the team. He worked. He developed his game.
Sean Lee, even with his concerning injury history, was someone the Cowboys were willing to expend additional assets to move up in the draft to get. His college game film was impressive. His elected captaincy of the team despite enforced absence spoke volumes to the regard in which he was held. Sean Lee was a player’s player and a coach’s dream. He was the kid you root for in the draft. And he was going to be a Dallas Cowboy.
Now, some seven seasons later, Lee remains a firm part of the Dallas landscape. He is a little battered and bruised. But he is still there.
As we move into Week 9 of the regular season the fans of the Dallas Cowboys are getting excited. Things are coming together. The franchise that has dubbed itself “America’s Team” is once again demanding the attention of the national audience. But something is different this time. The loud calls for respect are entirely justified.
The Cowboys are good. Potentially, they are very, very good.
Dallas is the team that Jerry Jones built. They are a franchise that reflects their Texan surroundings — they are a flash, affluent, eye-catching organization that rarely misses an opportunity to bathe in the limelight. But this iteration of Dallas Cowboys has a healthy amount of substance mixed in with their style.
Running back Ezekiel Elliot is powerfully charging through defenses and towards the probable crowning as Rookie of the Year. He is young, hungry and exceptionally talented. Dez Bryant remains one of the most dominant, competitive and influential wide receivers in the game. Jason Witten is an ever-dependable target at tight end.
There is an incredible solidity within the youthful offensive line they have assembled. This is a unit forged with genuine foundational pieces. This group of players — and the cap friendly contracts they are on — has rapidly become the envy of the league.
It wouldn’t be the Dallas Cowboys without some form of emerging and distracting narrative. The quarterback situation is one that has received the most media attention. Dak Prescott, drafted in the fourth round this year, has found himself unexpectedly thrust into the spotlight following injury to franchise quarterback Tony Romo. With each passing week Prescott has earned plaudits for his performance and much is made of his different skill-set and impressive mobility. The media lines are being drawn. The comparisons are being voiced. Judgements are offered on the aging but celebrated veteran and the novice performer. We are being primed for the eventual battle from which one will emerge as defined starter when both are fit and available.
The reality would seem to be that this Dallas offense, regardless of who plays quarterback, is primed for success.
Yet what is perhaps the most surprising element of the Cowboys’ recent success has been the consistent performance of their defense. To be distracted by the fireworks of the Dallas offense is understandable. At time of writing the Cowboys have a 6-1 record and much of the credit is owed to an offense that is controlling the clock and getting to the endzone with regularity. But their offensive efficiency is only half the story. The Dallas Cowboys have limited each team they have played this year to less than 23 points. Experienced co-ordinator Rod Marinelli has moulded a quietly efficient, understated and repeatedly effective defense.
Such description is also fitting for the individual talent of Sean Lee. He is undeniably the heart of the defense. Clumsy extension of the metaphor would allow us to reference not only his importance to the larger framework, his constant, repetitive strength with an ever-present fragility and — this is a stretch — his off-center positioning.
On the eve of the 2014 season Lee succumbed to a third knee cartilage injury. There were early concerns that this would abruptly end his career. The injury was severe enough to rule him out for the full year. In his absence Dallas turned to Rolando McClain to fill the vacant middle linebacker role. McClain was an unexpected revelation in an otherwise disappointing defense. When Lee returned to full fitness he was moved to weakside linebacker. The decision was taken to enable McClain to remain in a role he was clearly flourishing in. But the positional switch would also benefit Lee. The lateral move would see Lee withdraw from the most frequent collision zones in the center of the linebacking ranks. Weakside positioning allows him to remain within the contested and active zones but provides him a different starting angle of engagement.
Preservation of a prized asset was undoubtedly at the forefront of Dallas’ decision making process. But Lee’s agility, still very much in tact despite his injury history, has seen him thrive. At weakside linebacker Lee is able to pursue the play as it unfolds and there is an instinctual freedom in his defensive work. There is a fluidity in his movement but its all underpinned with purpose and control. He can improvise but still carry out instruction. He remains a team captain and is incredibly involved on a weekly basis. He is at the heart of the action.
Sean Lee has seen much change within the roster during his time in Dallas. He, like the viewing public, may be witnessing the evolution of the Cowboys. They might be moving into championship contention. They have youth on their side. But, like every successful team in the history of the National Football League, there must also be depth. There must be a core of the reliable. The quiet but consistent contributors.
The Dallas Cowboys gambled on Sean Lee. He may be the safest bet on their roster.