OXNARD, Calif. – You don’t have to watch four weeks of training camp to realize Cowboys middle linebacker Sean Lee has emerged as one of this team’s primary leaders. Lee sets the tone for the defense, and that’s what led to the most spirited practice of camp Tuesday.
That morning, Malibu resident Dick Butkus, widely regarded as the best middle linebacker of all-time, stopped by to visit with the Cowboys. After the morning walk-through, Cowboys coach Jason Garrett shouted across the field for Lee to come meet Butkus.
“It was one of the most surreal things I’ve ever experienced,” Lee told me Thursday. “And the fact that he’d heard of me just took it to a different level. I’ve obviously heard of him my whole life.”
Lee continues to show leadership in a variety of ways. Many of the Cowboys coaches and players signed autographs for the training camp volunteers Thursday morning after a walk-through session. Lee remained on the field at least 20 minutes longer than any of his teammates or coaches. If he can avoid the injuries that have hampered him in the past (missed 10 games last season), he has the potential to be one of the best middle linebackers in the league. He and weakside linebacker Bruce Carter should flourish in Monte Kiffin’s 4-3 defensive scheme because of their speed and ability to quickly diagnose plays.
On Thursday, Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones talked about Lee’s contract situation. He will become an unrestricted free agent after this season, but it’s unlikely the Cowboys will let that happen.
“When we look at things we need to do short and long term, he’s on that list,” Jones said of Lee. “His agreement is on that list. That would be the best way to say it. Those things have to fit. In terms of our planning and management of our cap dollars and our future, we’re planning on having him on the team. We do plan on it and we factor it in when we look at what we have to spend next year.”
The Cowboys could use the franchise tag on Lee, but it won’t come to that. Lee has an opportunity to be the team’s best defensive player for the next five or six seasons. He has adapted quickly to Kiffin’s “Tampa 2” scheme and he’s told me that his teammates are playing a lot faster than they were last season.
Lee has heard about all the talk about how he and Carter potentially having a breakout season. But it’s certainly not going to his head.
“That’s one of those things, until you put it down, until you win, until we win a Super Bowl, until you put it on tape week-to-week it means nothing,” Lee told reporters early in camp. “That’s all hype. We have to find a way to perfect this craft because if we don’t, and we lean on that hype, we’re never going to be good. We have a lot of work to do to get where we need to get and concentrating on that is not going to help us.”
On Thursday afternoon, I watched him cheer on third-stringers during 11-on-11 drills. The Cowboys have some core players in Tony Romo, Jason Witten and DeMarcus Ware who haven’t had much success in the playoffs. There’s a thought in some circles the Cowboys’ window for breaking through is closing. But Lee and Carter provide hope this team will continue to have opportunities.
After practice Thursday evening, I watched tight end Jason Witten walk to the other side of the field and run routes for a third-string quarterback. He didn’t do it for the cameras because they had all left the field by then. Lee has a similar approach.
The Cowboys would be wise to lock him up for a long time.