Don’t blame Cowboys coaching staff for Sean Lee’s knee injury

Sean Lee appeared to slip before he was hit by a teammate during Tuesday's practice.

Tony Gutierrez/AP

Sean Lee is a playmaker. He has 11 interceptions and two forced fumbles in his four-year career and was credited with 99 tackles in only 11 games last season. It’s Lee’s excellent instincts that put him in position to make such plays.

On Tuesday, however, the Dallas Cowboys linebacker’s instincts were too good.

During the team’s first OTA session, he got out in front of a screen pass and tried to plant while taking on rookie offensive lineman Zack Martin. Lee’s right leg gave out and then so did his left, just as Martin was trying to engage him. Lee tore his left ACL and is likely to miss the entire 2014 season.

The video sparked instant analysis from some who believed there was far too much contact for a non-padded session in May. At first glance, it might seem that Martin plowed Lee and caused the injury. But subsequent viewings show Lee’s knee gave out before Martin contacted him. In other words, it appears to be another extremely unfortunate season-ending injury before summer even arrives.

The NFL Players Association has been trying to limit such injuries with restrictions on workouts in the offseason and even during the regular season. Per the collective bargaining agreement, there is to be no "live contact" during OTAs.

Therein lies the gray area in Lee’s situation.

Martin was clearly looking to get a piece of Lee, and Martin admitted to reporters both players were going "full speed." But Martin was doing what blockers and defenders are taught to do during spring practices — engage one another without driving or knocking your teammate to the ground. Lee’s slipping appears to be what led Martin to knock him down.

The NFLPA, which declined official comment, is monitoring the situation. Several officials have seen the clip online and have spoken with Cowboys players, but the union has not yet made a formal request for the team’s tape of the practice. Whereas the union could charge the team with neglect if there were a clear, objective violation — e.g. if OTAs ran longer than the allotted 90 minutes or if a team scheduled an excessive number of sessions — there likely won’t be much said about the team’s role in Lee’s injury.

Especially because coach Jason Garrett said he gave the players clear instructions on practicing safely.

"We understand that we have helmets and jerseys on, and we really emphasize players staying off the ground and how you compete against each other," Garrett said after Tuesday’s session. "Really get some productive work done early in the down, and then once it gets into a skirmish or competitive situation like it would be in a normal play, you kind of back off of that. So you try to be as productive as you can in the environment that you’re in and make it competitive but also understand who you’re competing against."

Several players from other teams who viewed the clip of Lee’s injury told FOX Sports it was standard OTA speed and contact. (The players requested anonymity because they didn’t want to get involved in another team’s business.) Two players, both of whom have suffered non-contact ACL injuries, believe Lee would’ve torn his ACL even if Martin didn’t hit him.

In other words, injuries like this often happen in NFL offseason sessions and Lee’s injury is another one to add to the list. It’s unfortunate, particularly since Lee’s been plagued with injuries throughout his career, and it’s a blow to a Cowboys’ defense that doesn’t have a lot of depth or options on the free-agent market. But getting ready for September means putting in hard work in May.

And don’t blame the Cowboys for what came of it.