IRVING -- Oftentimes you don't get a real sense of a guy's worth until he's gone.
That's not the case with the Dallas Cowboys and linebacker Sean Lee, who will undergo season-ending surgery next week to repair a torn ligament in his big toe.
Lee was put on injured reserved Wednesday. Veteran backup Dan Connor will move into the starting up lineup at weakside linebacker. Second-year linebacker Bruce Carter will take over the play-calling duties, and former Detroit Lions first-round pick Ernie Sims was signed off the streets to take his spot on the roster.
Look for Connor to replace Lee in the base defense with Sims, depending on how fast he can pick up the defense, or Alex Albright replacing him on passing downs.
But the Cowboys already know there is no replacing Lee, who was far and away their leading tackler with 77 stops, the undisputed quarterback of the defense who made all the calls and the inspirational and vocal leader.
"Sean Lee is an outstanding football player," coach Jason Garrett said. "I can't tell you how well he's been playing since he's been our starting inside linebacker. He's the leader of the defense. He makes the calls. He plays the right way in practice. He plays the right way in the game. He defends the run. He defends the pass. He's a bell cow for us and a guy that really, really everybody on our defense and football team looks up to.
"He goes about it the right way, and he's an outstanding person. We love everything about him."
Owner Jerry Jones was even more definitive about the loss: "That's a setback. ... Not only a setback after the ball is snapped, but before the ball is snapped. The thought that we'd move Carter to his spot and Connor is in, the old adage that it gives someone else a chance to show what they've got doesn't necessarily apply here, because [Lee's] proven to be a difference maker out there. We're going to have to adjust for him."
No one knows better than the players.
"Sean has the ability to diagnose plays quicker than anybody I have ever seen, and he gets to the ball before the ball even gets to the running backs' hands sometimes," cornerback Brandon Carr said. "He knows what's going to happen before it happens, and he gets us all on the same page. He can diagnose things and call out different plays and help us as a defense and helps us get a jump on what the offense is doing. We have to rally around each other and help each other out there."
Safety Gerald Sensabaugh echoed Jones, saying "it's a big blow for us."
"He is the leader of our team, he means so much," Sensabaugh added. "It's everything -- production, leader, play-caller. He is the total package. He is one of the best players on our football team. He is going to be missed."
Veteran defensive end Marcus Spears said injuries are part of the league and everybody understands that.
"He's absolutely one of the top linebackers in this league. Everybody knows that," Spears said. "The good thing about it is we've got a lot guys that can play. Hopefully it doesn't drop off too much, but Sean brings some things to the game that most guys don't."
Connor, who played alongside Lee at Penn State, said it's bittersweet getting playing time because of an injury to a good friend. Connor said it will take a committee to replace Lee's production.
"It's hard to say one guy's going to go in there and do what Sean Lee does," Connor said. "I think he's the top player in the game right now at that position.
"We'll get a couple of different guys who are good at certain things and do it that way and have Bruce in there with the [radio receiver in his] helmet, calling the defense. He did a great job with it last week."
Carter faced a similar situation in college at North Carolina, so he is up to the task mentally. But he said he is not going to pressure himself.
"Talking to my mom yesterday, she said, 'You did this before,'" Carter said. "There are certain situations where you just have to step up. I feel sorry for Sean, what happened to Sean. But at the same time I've got to keep pushing."
Clarence E. Hill Jr.