A football player can hit the weight room and get stronger. He can study the playbook and get smarter. He can change positions and be relatively faster.
But what Sean Lee has, football has no cure for.
Injury prone. This latest Lee setback, feared to be a torn ligament in his left knee, could sideline him for the entire season.
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If you’re keeping score at home, please you do the math. I’ve lost count of how many muscle pulls and dislocated wrists and broken toes and neck ligament tears that Lee has had since the Dallas Cowboys drafted him in 2010.
At Penn State, Lee led the Big Ten in fumble recoveries and was second in the conference in total tackles. He had 14 of them in the Alamo Bowl and was named the game’s defensive MVP.
The Cowboys found Lee, however, in the second round, in part because the one-time finalist for the Butkus, Bednarik and Nagurski awards tore the ACL in his right knee before the 2008 season.
Lee has missed games each of his four previous seasons in the NFL.
When the Cowboys’ defense has needed him the most, he has been healthy enough to play only one game in the month of December since 2011.
And now this. Of course you’ve seen the play. It got “Breaking News!” treatment on the local TV stations.
No pads. No tackling. No problem, supposedly. But Lee appeared to slip and, as rookie lineman Zack Martin braced to block, the linebacker’s knee buckled.
The knee injury in college cost Lee 15 months and likely a dozen or so spots in the NFL draft order.
More than one post-draft analyst suggested that the Cowboys optimistically reached to make him the 55th player selected.
Injury concerns, the scouting reports said. NFL scouts wondered how the ACL injury was going to affect Lee’s lateral mobility.
OK, so he didn’t turn out to be the next Lawrence Taylor, but for the Cowboys he became a heady, solid Sean Lee. Pre-draft scouting descriptions of him being like “a coach on the field” had proven true.
But, as equally predicted, Lee can’t seem to stay on the field.
Even after missing 15 games over the past two seasons, owner Jerry Jones appropriately thought enough of Lee to sign him last summer to a six-year, $51 million extension.
With DeMarcus Ware left to depart via free agency, Lee officially elevated to the role of the Cowboys defense’s most important player — a defense that ranked last season among the franchise’s all-time worst.
If Lee is lost for the 2014 season, a simple shuffling is not likely to fill the void. Linebacker Anthony Hitchens of Iowa was drafted in the fourth round, but lacks experience in the middle.
Any unsigned free agents out there? Might be time for Ernie Sims, part three.
But neither Sims nor, say, Rocky McIntosh is as savvy and impactful as Lee can be.
Lee’s absence will reverberate throughout a defense that hopes to regain some self-esteem under Rod Marinelli.
That was the plan, at least. Add a few rookies. Sign a Henry Melton. Hope that Marinelli can make some sense out of last year’s Tampa Two debacle.
A new coordinator can work wonders. Look at what Rob Ryan did in New Orleans.
Players can get stronger, smarter. But there’s one line in the scouting reports that they can’t erase — injury prone.
Lee is “mentally tough,” said coach Jason Garrett, “and he really does everything he can to get himself ready to play.”
There is no reason to doubt that, of course. Sean Lee has done it all before.