The Dallas Cowboys couldn’t even go two hours with a healthy Sean Lee.
The veteran middle linebacker, knocked out by injuries the past three seasons, slipped and tore the anterior crucial ligaments in his left knee Tuesday on the first day of organized team activities at Valley Ranch.
The Dallas Cowboys diagnosed a torn ACL, which an MRI is expected to confirm today. The Cowboys did not make an announcement Tuesday, but a team source said, “Doesn’t look good.”
The injury can require six to eight months of recovery. But players have made it back sooner than that. In 1995, Ron Woodson hurt his knee in the season opener and played in the Super Bowl 19 weeks later. In 1997, Jerry Rice was hurt in the season opener and played in a December game, although he re-injured the knee.
The Cowboys were about eight minutes away from the end of the first full-team practice of the year when Lee braced to take on a block by first-round pick Zack Martin. Instead, his leg went out from under him and he crumpled under the 300-pound rookie lineman.
He remained on the ground until he was helped by trainers to the locker room. Frustration and anger were clear on the face of the fifth-year veteran, who has missed 18 games in his career.
“I don’t really know what happened. Two guys playing hard,” said Martin, who finished his block against Lee, sending him hard to the ground as the defender was losing his footing. But no one blamed Martin or the play. “I really don’t know. We were just both running out and ended up going against each other right in the open field.”
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said of Lee that, “It looked like he had overrun the play a little bit, was trying to put his foot in the ground and come back.”
Lee has already had an ACL tear in the other knee. He tore it at Penn State during a non-contact drill at spring practice before his senior season. It was one reason he was available in the second round for the Cowboys in 2010, and he didn’t make his NFL debut until Week 3.
In his second year, he missed one game with a hand injury. In 2012, he missed 10 games because of a broken toe. Last year, he missed five games with leg and neck injuries.
Last August, the Cowboys signed Lee to a six-year extension worth up to $51 million, but protected themselves against injury. Lee has a $1.5 million escalator if he plays in 80 percent of the snaps in a given year. His base salary of $750,000 is guaranteed.
He also got a $10 million signing bonus, but his guaranteed money is far lower than other elite linebackers.
“Sean has had to deal with injuries through college and also here in the NFL. He really does everything he can to get himself ready to play,” Garrett said. “Unfortunate he’s had to deal with a few of these things. But he’s as mentally tough an individual as I’ve ever been around, so whatever the circumstances are, he always puts his best foot forward and strives to be his best. So don’t anticipate this being any different.”
Rookie linebacker Anthony Hitchens, who the Cowboys said they drafted because he could fit in as a backup to Lee in the middle, took over for Lee in the lineup for the rest of practice.
“They were already making me speed up the process, so it’s not going to slow down now,” he said. “I’ve got to study that much harder now in case my number does get called. I have no idea what the coaching staff is going to do for tomorrow’s practice, so I’ve just got to be prepared. Either way, I’m going to go home and be studying, so that doesn’t change my plans tonight.”
The Cowboys could try to sign a veteran off the street. Among the available free agents are Rocky McIntosh, Jonathan Vilma, Pat Angerer and Ernie Sims.
The Cowboys nearly got the chance to draft a linebacker in the first round. They had their target set on Ohio State’s Ryan Shazier, but he was taken one pick before their turn at No. 16.
Now the Cowboys await word on how long they will be missing their veteran starter, who has 193 tackles, 11 interceptions, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and two interception returns for touchdowns in just 46 of a possible 64 games.
“It scared me. When I first saw him go down, I kind of held my breath,” cornerback Morris Claiborne said. “I haven’t talked to anybody. I don’t know what the injury is right now or how it’s going to play out. But Sean, he’s a warrior, and he’ll be back as quick as he can.”