Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett frequently talks about building his team and building his program with the right kind of guys.
He defines those guys as ones who play with passion, emotion and enthusiasm. They are guys who are students of the game, who are accountable and who don’t make excuses.
That Garrett is stocking these Cowboys with the right kind of guys is evident in the spirit they have played with through the first seven games of the season. They have not always been perfect, and at times have been downright frustrating, especially on defense.
They have dealt with injuries that have robbed them of some of their best players and forced them to play free agents off the street in prominent roles.
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But these Cowboys (4-3), Garrett’s right kind of guys, have played on and head toward Sunday’s game against the Detroit Lions (4-3) with a chance to take a huge step forward — win a third straight game for the first time this season, win back-to-back road games for the first time since 2009 and reach two games over .500.
Nobody embodies the type of team Garrett is trying to build and their rise over the past few weeks more than linebacker Sean Lee, who is coming off arguably the best game of his career in Sunday’s victory against the Philadelphia Eagles.
He had 11 tackles and an interception, while playing a huge role in shutting down NFL leading rusher LeSean McCoy, who carried 18 times for 55 yards, including eight carries for 12 yards in the first half.
Lee was named the NFC defensive player of the week for his efforts.
“He’s the right kind of guy,” Garrett said. “As a coach, and as a coaching staff, it’s great for us to be able to point to a guy like that, because you can say so many different things. It’s best when he’s staring at you right in the face each and every day about how to do it, how to practice, how to meet, how to prepare yourself each and every week and certainly how to play.”
Lee’s interception against the Eagles was the ninth of his career, more than any other NFL linebacker has collected since he entered the league in 2010.
He is far and away the team’s leading tackler with 88 on the season and coming off his fifth consecutive game of double-digit tackles.
But Lee will be the first to tell you he was as much a part of the team’s early-season struggles on defense as anyone. When the Cowboys allowed back-to-back games of more than 500 yards of offense against San Diego and Denver in back-to-back losses in weeks 4 and 5, Lee was victimized repeatedly in coverage by tight ends Antonio Gates and Julius Thomas.
He took the performances personally and showed leadership after the Broncos game, saying that he was embarrassed by his play and vowing to be better. Lee said he had to be a playmaker for this defense to be good.
He was that and more against the Eagles.
Lee was perplexed about his player of week award. Mostly, his focus is on helping the Cowboys continue to improve defensively, pointing out that they are just two games removed from giving up 51 points in a loss to the Broncos.
“I think there are guys on our defense who played better than I did who probably could have gotten that award instead of me,” Lee said. “It was a great team effort and great win. I still see areas where I can improve and play better. We still have room to improve.”
To Garrett, that was typical Lee.
“That’s just the way he lives his life. Sean Lee has made 16, 17 tackles in a game and he comes off the field like I didn’t play very well,” Garrett said. “The standard is high for their performance and they’re always looking for ways to improve and that’s the way Sean’s been since he’s been here.”
This week, the Lions are seemingly a much tougher task than the Washington Redskins and Eagles, with a complete offense featuring quarterback Matt Stafford, running Reggie Bush and the league’s best receiver in Calvin Johnson.
“We have gotten better every week,” Lee said. “When we have the opportunity to make plays, we have to make them. We didn’t do that in the Denver game. We didn’t do it in the second half of the San Diego game.”
Lee says that starts with him as the personification of Garrett’s right kind of guy with the right kind of attitude the Cowboys are trying to build around.
“I’m making more plays, but there are more plays I can make,” Lee said. “I’m still leaving some on the field.”