August 2, 2012

Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee fills vital role as team leader

Third-year linebacker Sean Lee is poised for a breakout season.

OXNARD, Calif. -- During free time between the Dallas Cowboys' twice-daily practice sessions in training camp, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan can count on linebacker Sean Lee to join him in breaking down videotapes from the morning workout.

"He's in there every day. It'll be just us coaches and him," Ryan said. "No one cares more than he does. I think there's one Sean Lee in this league for the commitment that he has. He reminds me of the great Tedy Bruschi, who was one-of-a-kind himself."

Bruschi, an ESPN pro football analyst, won three Super Bowls and was a two-time All-Pro selection during his 14-year career with the New England Patriots. Bruschi is considered a strong Hall of Fame candidate when he is eligible to be considered by electors.

Lee, a third-year pro who led the Cowboys in tackles last season (131) despite playing with a wrist injury, downplays the Bruschi talk.

"To be compared to him, it's an honor. But I don't think I'm close to it yet," said Lee, who makes the Cowboys' defensive calls. "I need to play a lot more. I need to make a lot more plays and we've got to start winning. We've got to win Super Bowls. That's a guy who won Super Bowls and is a Hall of Fame type of guy."

Eventually, Cowboys coaches and NFL observers believe that is the type of player Lee (6-foot-2, 245 pounds) can become. Gil Brandt, former Cowboys player personnel director who is now an analyst for, predicted Lee is poised for a breakthrough season.

"In my estimation, he's a Pro Bowler. He can be this year," Brandt said. "There's not enough good things to say about him. I think Sean Lee is one of the best draft choices they've ever made around here."

Brandt, of course, made many good ones in conjunction with former coach Tom Landry and former general manager Tex Schramm while building the Cowboys into a perennial NFL power. Brandt harkened back to one of those selections, Ring of Honor inductee Lee Roy Jordan (1963-76), when drawing an analogy to Lee among former players who have worn a blue star on their helmets.

"He is probably a big Lee Roy Jordan," Brandt said. "Lee Roy had a great impact in all phases of the game, and he played a lot of years. He deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. Sean can rush the passer, drops into coverage, stops the run and makes interceptions... He can do it all."

To current coaches and teammates, Lee proved that last season while establishing or matching team highs in interceptions (4), fumble recoveries (2) and tackles for losses (8). He did that while wearing a brace to protect an injured wrist and making 52 more tackles than any other Cowboy during the 15 games he played.

That is why linebacker Victor Butler smiled when asked to guess what a healthy Lee could mean to the Cowboys over a 16-game schedule.

"A hurt Sean Lee is good. I'd take him at 50 percent," Butler said. "But Sean Lee is a great asset because of his leadership qualities. His knowledge of the game is amazing. He could probably coach us. Sean is awesome."

Inside linebacker Bruce Carter said Lee has become the gold standard for teammates in terms of a lead-by-example player.

"He's somebody that, if you want to be better, you just do everything that he does," Carter said. "He watches film. He stays after it. He's always the first guy here... He's a great guy to model your game after."

Lee was a renowned multi-sport athlete while growing up in the Pittsburgh area, including a youth-league baseball stint on a team coached by former Rangers' CEO and managing partner Chuck Greenberg.

But Lee's focus on football is what convinced coach Jason Garrett to thrust Lee into the role of team leader a year ago, ahead of veteran linebackers Keith Brooking and Bradie James. Garrett said that role should only grow in 2012, with James and Brooking no longer on the roster and Lee working at inside linebacker with two newcomers: Carter and Dan Connor.

"Linebackers are like the quarterback of the defense," Garrett said. "He knows the game inside and out. He knows this scheme ...and his personality is infectious. You like that throughout your team. But to have someone like that in those leadership positions, it really can make a big impact on the team."

Coaches and teammates are counting on it. So are Cowboys fans who long to see the team return to the playoffs for the first time since 2009, the year before Lee arrived. Despite the accolades, Lee cited room for improvement in his game.

"I look at myself and I usually see the weaknesses of my game on film," Lee said. "So I'm always trying to concentrate on what I can do to be a better football player. I know I've got a lot of room for improvement. Until I'm the best at what I do, I'm going to keep working."

Probably harder than anyone else, said Ryan, who described Lee as "the poster boy" for the type of player coaches seek in a team leader.

"Guys buy into Sean Lee," Ryan said. "He's a perfectionist. He has earned the respect. No one works harder. You have to have a guy like that. If you don't have someone like that, it's a struggle."

The Cowboys are counting on Lee to minimize their struggles in efforts to rebound from last year's 8-8 record.

Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch

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