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DALLAS (105.3 THE FAN) – On his way to being Lee Roy Jordan, Sean Lee has taken a turn toward Randy Hughes.
Lee, the Cowboys’ leading tackler, defensive signal-caller and one of the team’s captains, tore a ligament in his right big toe in the 3rd quarter of last Sunday’s victory in Charlotte and will have season-ending surgery on Tuesday. While displaying similar talents and leadership to Jordan, the Ring of Honor linebacker from the ‘70s, Lee’s spotty health is also reminiscent of Hughes, the ‘70s safety whose career never fully blossomed because of numerous physical ailments.
On a dark day in Dallas in which legendary sports writer Frank Luksa died, owner Jerry Jones’ mother, Arminta, passed away in Missouri and the team’s TV ratings sunk to a 10-year low, the loss of Lee is devastating to a season already mired in mediocrity. Despite DeMarcus Ware’s more glamorous contributions, Lee is the Cowboys’ best, most consistent, most important defensive player. Since he entered the NFL as a rookie in 2010 no linebacker has more than his 7 interceptions.
In short, the Cowboys losing Lee is akin to the Texans losing J.J. Watt. And even more damaging than the Ravens losing Ray Lewis.
While Dan Connor, who has been a special-teams’ nightmare, is the “next man up” to fill Lee’s linebacker role, the drop-off is so significant that the Cowboys will likely transform their entire defensive scheme rather than merely attempt to fill the gaping hole. The Cowboys are expected to sign a veteran as well, likely former Lions, Eagles and Colts’ starter Ernie Sims. More importantly, expect defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to employ more 4-3 looks starting Sunday against the New York Giants, with Bruce Carter as the signal-calling middle linebacker behind 4 down linemen.
But on a unit that has all season managed to overcome injuries to safety Barry Church and Anthony Spencer, the loss of Lee might prove a fatal blow.
Lee’s career was arcing to that of Jordan, the feisty middle linebacker who played at Alabama under Bear Bryant. Jordan led Dallas’ “Doomsday Defense” of the early ‘70s, winning Super Bowl VI, being named the NFC’s Defensive Player of the Year in ’73 and getting enshrined into the Ring of Honor. Lee, who played for Joe Paterno at Penn State, has quickly developed into one of the most sure tacklers in the NFL and, even from an inside linebacker position responsible for stuffing runs, is one of the most dynamic playmakers in the league.
Lee’s one flaw so far is his health.
In college in ’08 he tore his ACL. As a rookie he was slowed by a knee injury and then missed 2 games with a hamstring. Last year he dislocated his left wrist, but managed to play with a giant cast on his hand and miss only 1 game. Hughes was the heir to Cliff Harris and Charlie Waters as a star Cowboys’ safety. In Super Bowl XII he recovered 2 fumbles and intercepted a pass. But persistent shoulder injuries kept him out of the lineup, neutered his potential and forced him to retire in ’81 after only 6 seasons.
Lee’s absence will gouge the Cowboys with the full range of harm.
The Cowboys go into Sunday’s showdown with the Giants without arguably their most important players on both sides of the ball in Lee and running back DeMarco Murray.
Long-term, the Cowboys – who already weren’t good enough or deep enough to be anything other than .500 – face the rest of the season without their pounding defensive heart and soul.
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