Don’t be cynical and talk about the injuries that cost the linebacker 58 games during his 11-year pro career that came to an end this week when Lee announced his retirement.
Think of how it bothered him and the hours and hours he put into avoiding injury.
Think about the type of player and the leader Lee was on and off the field.
That’s exactly what the Cowboys need in order to remake their defense under coordinator Dan Quinn.
An argument can be made the Cowboys still need Lee to help their defense even as he turns 35 in July. Linebacker Jaylon Smith is coming off a struggle of a season in 2020. Leighton Vander Esch has missed 15 games the past two seasons with injuries. If something happens to either of them, the Cowboys are looking at Luke Gifford or Francis Bernard playing significant snaps at the moment.
Perhaps linebacker should be considered the primary need entering Thursday’s draft in Cleveland (8 p.m. ET, on ESPN and the ESPN App).
While that move is unlikely to happen in the first round, it’s now a must that the Cowboys consider linebacker prospects in the draft’s subsequent rounds.
One of Cowboys’ best linebackers
On first and second down, if Lee were playing, he could still help the Cowboys if something happened to Smith or Vander Esch. And in the meeting room, he could still help the Cowboys. He would always hold every player accountable, so just having his presence would be meaningful.
When Lee was rolling, he was as good as any off-the-ball linebacker the Cowboys have had. Maybe that’s over the top when looking at former players such as Lee Roy Jordan and Chuck Howley, staples of the coach Tom Landry era, but Lee was that good.
The Cowboys’ 2010 second-round pick (No. 55 overall) was credited with 995 tackles, good for eighth in team history. He averaged 8.4 tackles per game, the most among the top-10 tacklers in team history. Darren Woodson, who is the franchise leader with 1,350, averaged 7.6 tackles per game.
Lee holds the team record for most tackles in a game (22) and most solo tackles in a game (17) against the New York Giants on Dec. 11, 2016. There have been seven 20-tackle-or-more games in team history; Lee has five of them. He intercepted 14 passes. He had 41 quarterback pressures, 59 tackles for loss, 32 pass breakups and four sacks.
He played his best after his most severe injury, a torn anterior cruciate that knocked him out of the 2014 season. In 2015, he was named to the Pro Bowl after recording 156 tackles. In 2016, he was named to the Pro Bowl a second time and was a first-team All-Pro with 174 tackles.
Lee hated when the media would say he played a 16-game season just once (2019). He was quick to point out the coaches held him out of the 2016 regular-season finale because playoff positioning was solidified and they did not want to risk him to injury. Lee stood on the sideline in full uniform, helmet strapped up for the entire game. He knew he had missed too many games already and did not want to miss one more, especially when he was at the top of his game.
Hamstring injuries limited him in 2017 (five games missed) and ’18 (nine). In 2020, his season almost never started because of a sports hernia surgery that forced him to miss seven games.
“There are always regrets, but I’m proud of what I was able to accomplish and I leave this game grateful,” Lee told ESPN.
Too often we remember the regrets, but with Lee, remember what he accomplished; remember how good he was.