Mac Engel

‘If healthy’ the constant caveat for Cowboys LB Lee

An assortment of injuries has cut into linebacker Sean Lee’s career during his time with the Cowboys.
An assortment of injuries has cut into linebacker Sean Lee’s career during his time with the Cowboys. Star-Telegram

Unofficially, Las Vegas oddsmakers have set the over/under on games played this season by Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee at 9 1/2. Both feel like a horrible bet, even if it is imaginary.

As a closet optimist, give me the over — just allow me to use your money to place the bet.

Of course, the same line could have been used for running back DeMarco Murray last season. Until 2014, Murray was no different than Sean Lee — good, but always hurt. Murray did not miss a game last season.

Sean Lee is like a pitcher coming back from Tommy John surgery, only worse — whatever you get out of him this year is a gift. As much as the Cowboys need this man, there is no way they should rely on him. And it’s not his fault … but it is.

He just looks like a guy whose talent is NFL caliber but whose body screamed “Uncle!” in college. The sad part is that he is so good when he is healthy; during one NBC Sunday Night Football telecast, color analyst Cris Collinsworth said Lee was the best young linebacker in the NFL. That was in 2012.

Lee recently turned 29, and in the NFL, that is no longer young. He either does it now, or that’s it.

Lee is one of those players that you say, “He’s a great player — when he’s healthy.” If he’s not healthy, and he can’t be trusted to stay healthy in order to play, then he is not a good player.

Of the dozens of surprises this team enjoyed last season, none was any bigger than a defense that was above average without Lee.

Lee suffered a torn ACL in mini-camp that wiped out his entire season. A defense that was feared to be one of the worst in league history with Lee turned out to be OK without him; the addition of linebacker Rolando McClain helped mitigate Lee’s absence considerably.

Ironically, the Cowboys’ two best linebackers — Lee and Ro — are guys they are scared to death won’t be there on Sunday. In theory, Lee’s return should make the Cowboys better, but how can anybody with any knowledge of history count on this man?

As a senior at Penn State, he suffered a torn ACL in a non-contact drill in 2008 that killed his season.

As a rookie with the Cowboys, he had a hamstring injury that just forced him to miss two games.

In 2011, he started 15 games, but suffered a dislocated left wrist.

In 2012, he suffered a toe injury in Week 7 that limited him to just six games.

In 2013, he had a neck injury as well as a hamstring injury that forced him to miss five games.

And last season, he had the torn ACL.

That isn’t injury prone. That’s like God is saying, “Dude, what are you doing? Don’t play football.”

I asked Cowboys coach Jason Garrett if he thought Lee could handle a 16-game workload.

“Absolutely,” he said. “Absolutely.”

Yeeeeeeah, I don’t believe him either. What else is he going to say? “Not a chance.”

“He’s been a heck of a football player and a really good leader for us,” Garrett said. “We have to handle it right and he has to handle it right. We are confident we can do that.”

That I believe. But there are some things that not even Jerry Jones’ money can buy.

The Cowboys have moved Lee to weakside linebacker, and are doing everything they can to make him do as little as possible during training camp. He needs to stay healthy more than he needs to practice. Maybe these moves and preventative measures will allow Lee to actually stay on the football field during a football game in the National Football League.

When he plays, the man makes plays everywhere. He has tremendous hands, and makes plays on the ball like a safety. Lee has 11 interceptions in 46 games and recovered three fumbles. He is instinctive, and is a supreme tackler.

He just might be a bit small for this job. He is 6-foot-2, 238 pounds. He is too big to play safety, and might be too small for linebacker.

The Cowboys have to try this because he is the best alternative; if Lee is healthy, he makes the Cowboys’ defense better, and he is a Pro Bowler.

It’s the “if he is healthy” part that you can’t trust, and why taking the under on the Sean Lee “Games Played” line would be a wise decision.

Listen to Mac Engel every Tuesday and Thursday on Shan & RJ from 5:30-10 a.m. on 105.3 The Fan.

Mac Engel, 817-390-7697

Twitter: @macengelprof and The Big Mac Blog

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