In a story that seems too cruel for the Cowboys to survive, Sean Lee's knee collapsed under the stress of a rather normal football movement yesterday in the very first day of OTAs on May 27th. Reports suggest his ACL is torn and will require surgery and a rehabilitation process that will cause him to start preparing now for 2015.
Today is surely a day for the media to nod in agreement that everyone saw this coming. I know most of us who covered the draft knew about Sean Lee's history with ACL injuries and therefore raised an eyebrow when his name was selected. At the same time, in the now-famous leaked out draft board, we remember that Sean Lee was the 14th highest rated player on the Cowboys board - that means overall!
In other words, they did their medical homework and cleared him and clearly, others did not. Does that reveal a major flaw in the way the Cowboys assume medical risks? Yes, but let's not get too carried away.
The fact is that teams in all sports do understand that injuries happen. In fact, in the sport of football, if you get to your NFL physical and have no damage, then you almost assuredly did not play major college football. The players from Alabama have a particular reputation as Nick Saban reportedly runs practices like actual games and the players there compete at such an absurd level that NFL people are suspicious about how much their bodies are used up by the time they get to the NFL.
Hearing a player has a knee issue from high school or the pros, or that a pitcher had Tommy John as a high school senior, or that a basketball player has had a chronic ankle issue is important to note. But, as you examine a player with an athletic history, you must consider their past, but if they are fully fit and recovered and performing all of your requests at 100% levels, you must consider and weigh the cost/risk analysis and make a decision.
Guys fall in a draft or in a free agency season because of a number of reasons. Sometimes, their school is too small. Sometimes, their coach says they party too much. Sometimes, like with Drew Brees, the injury happened too recently. Miami wouldn't clear his shoulder when he hit free agency and New Orleans swooped in. Guess how many times he has hurt his shoulder since 2005? Did New Orleans ignore all of the medical evidence that said he would be hurt all of the time if they signed him? Or did they do the cost/risk analysis and decided the upside outweighed the downside?
Lee missed 2008 with his right ACL. He missed a month in 2009 with his left ACL (simply a sprain). He missed action in his rookie year in 2010 with a hamstring injured in the season opener in Washington. Again in 2011, it was a wrist that went the wrong way. In 2012, in Carolina, he was lost for the year with a major toe/foot injury. Then, in 2013, with everything finally seemingly better he had more hamstring problems and missed action from New Orleans pretty much until the end of the year, save for a brief appearance in Chicago. And, of course, now, we know that he won't touch the field in pads in 2014.
This history would have to be considered the worst case scenario of what sort of injuries could beset a man if we thought of everything going wrong. And all of this happening to a guy that the Cowboys love so much that they would hand the keys of the franchise to him even if they were intimately aware of the baggage he brings:
"Sean is Superman, and I mean it. I remember back before the draft, ESPN did a special on him, and I think members of his team called him God. He has such a will that if anybody can come back sooner than what you ought to be coming back from, he can do it. He’s rehabbing at the most intense level you can, and if anybody can get back here in a couple of weeks, he can do it." - Jerry Jones - November 2013By the way, it should be noted that anyone that watches him play agrees with the overall football analysis of Sean's play. From his monster game in his rookie season against the Colts and Peyton Manning to his stunning display against the Redskins in 2013, he really is all that they hoped he would be when he is lined up between the hash marks.
He has more interceptions than any LB in the sport since he has been in the league and his tackle totals are exceptional. He reads and diagnoses in very short order, then seeks and destroys quite well.
But that darned body, just 6'2/236 makes you wonder if his body wasn't designed for this type of beating. Also, at 4.78 in the 40, can the mind continue to make up the difference that his knees cannot sustain?
Over the course of his Cowboys career, Lee has been on the field for 49% of the defensive snaps. Given that he is a 3-down Linebacker, that sets off alarms with regards to his attendance record.
In 2010, he played 17% of snaps, then 83% in 2011, 32% in 2012, and 62% in 2013. Take away 2010 because he was being brought along behind Bradie James and Keith Brooking, and you get a career number of 59% of snaps from 2011-2013. And, of course, we assume 0% in 2014. We can assume that after this season, his career snap percentage will be in the high 30s. Which means that on the scale of Cal Ripken to Greg Oden, he is certainly not Superman.
Now, are they covered if his health never cooperates? For the most part. There will be dead money if he decides to give in, but A) I don't think he will at age 27 and B) the dead money is not substantial. And moving forward, he had incentives that could drive up his money based on 80% snap attendance, but I believe the numbers above suggest that isn't a major consideration right now.
More importantly, what do they do about his absence? Well, let us nod in their favor for picking need over want in the 4th round a few week ago when they snagged Iowa LB Anthony Hitchens. He has some limitations, but overall, I think you can expect reasonable play at the Mike from him. I wrote a full report on him last week and you may wish to check that out now.
Basically, they are not dead without Sean Lee, but as one NFL blogger pointed out yesterday online, the Cowboys had a historically bad defense last year and now have lost their 3 best players from that group in Jason Hatcher, DeMarcus Ware, and Sean Lee for 2014. Wow. That is a startling truth that is a ominous indicator of what could lie ahead.
It really comes back to this - and this, dear reader, is why I cringe in utter agony when the Cowboys delude themselves into another trade up on draft day to get that "one piece" that they have to have - that lack of depth is rearing its head again. This team is so paper thin that they usually cannot sustain injuries at any normal level without complete and utter collapse. Yet, year after year, they trade 2 picks for 1 guy and continue the top-heavy approach to team building in the NFL. When you trade up for Dez Bryant or Sean Lee or DeMarcus Lawrence or Morris Claiborne or Mike Jenkins or Roy Williams, then they had better be awesome and available. Dez qualifies, but the others all have either fallen short of "awesome" or have had injury issues (so far). But, consolidating 2 picks into 1 man puts enormous leverage on those players delivering on the hope and promise.
The alternate approach is to treat each asset as dear and vital and spread your assets more evenly up and down your roster. This allows for less sizzle, but possibly more steak. You can sustain injuries or underperformance better and have a suitable replacement ready.
They are using one of their key depth chips in May as Hitchens now moves up the depth chart by necessity. There are spots all over the field where there is no replacement ready above waiver wire caliber. They can survive this. But, if they lose 2 or 3 more regulars at any point in 2014 (which, of course, could all happen in Week 1), the whole repeatable process of implosion followed by street free agents could begin anew.
You needed bodies. Lots of quality bodies. That is why you don't trade up every year. But, they ignore history and then get bit. The beauty is that when they get bit, they often act shocked and forget that you have to save money for an unexpected car repair as a matter of routine.
I really don't blame them much for Sean Lee. If he was Drew Brees and healthy, we would be mad at them for listening to their doctors. But, I do blame them for not realizing that when you invest in players with injury histories, you better realize the importance of quality depth behind them. And by drafting Hitchens, they may have figured that out partially, but clearly with their Post-Parcells draft approach they don't seem ready to admit that their frivolous use of picks is a dangerous game that beats them up in May and July when Lee and Tyrone Crawford are lost and the scrambling begins all over again for another year.
I hope Lee recovers and returns. He is too good a player to never see him for a full season. But, unfortunately, we are seeing that durability is still as undervalued amongst fans and media as any skill in this destructive sport. You only consider a player's fragility when he limps off the field. A team has to be far more aware of these realities to avoid treating the sport like a game of blackjack where a "bad beat" will send you to the poor house.