No player enters the FOX America’s Game of the Week between Dallas and the visiting New York Giants with more mixed emotions than Cowboys inside linebacker Dan Connor.
Connor is excited about getting the chance Sunday to make his first Cowboys start (4:25 p.m. ET kickoff). The circumstances, though, have made him sick to his stomach.
Connor is replacing the injured Sean Lee, who is more than a teammate. The two became friends eight years ago when Lee took a recruiting visit to Penn State and spent time at Connor’s apartment. Lee returned the favor during the offseason when hosting Connor at his house while the latter was taking a free-agent visit with the Cowboys.
“We had some beers, talked a little football, a little Penn State and had a good time,” a smiling Connor told FOXSports.com.
The conversation turned glum earlier this week when Lee called Connor with news that he would miss the rest of the season because of a toe injury serious enough to require surgery.
“It’s a terrible situation,” said Connor, who will now start alongside second-year inside linebacker Bruce Carter. “It broke my heart talking to him initially about it. I’ve had surgeries in my time and it’s tough, especially when you’re rolling like he was rolling. That’s hard.”
So is Connor’s task in trying to compensate for the loss of a player who had started to emerge as one of the NFL’s top 3-4 inside linebackers.
“You’re not going to replace a Sean Lee. It’s as simple as that,” said Connor, who is expected to share some snaps with freshly signed veteran Ernie Sims in passing situations.
“It’s all about going in there and executing how you can. You can’t put an onus on one guy. You lose a great player, it takes a whole team to rally.”
Connor is far better prepared to step in than when he first arrived in Dallas with a two-year, $6.5 million contract. The 6-foot-2, 241-pound Connor was a 4-3 linebacker during his first four NFL seasons with the Carolina Panthers. But having the chance to play in a different system contributed to Connor’s decision to join the Cowboys.
“In a 4-3, it’s a lot of running through gaps and single-gap responsibility,” he said. “You get quicker, smaller 220-pound guys who are flying around.
“My style of play is more physical. This is more press and getting off blocks. It’s a huge jump but as I get more and more comfortable, it really fits what I can do well.”
The Cowboys have done well defensively this season, with a No. 4 ranking in yards allowed. Dallas got its season off to a strong start by keeping New York’s offense in check during a 24-17 road win in Week 1.
The best way the unit could honor Lee would be with a repeat performance Sunday.
“We have to keep pushing it, particularly this week,” Connor said. “Losing your leader, you’ve really got to step up and be locked in. It’s a tough time to lose him because we have so much respect for the Giants. It makes it even harder a situation, but everyone has to rally around and make plays.”