OXNARD, Calif. — Sean Lee dismisses talk of how good the Dallas defense could be if he and Bruce Carter started together at linebacker for a full season.
It hasn’t happened yet. So until it does — and until the Cowboys get back to the playoffs — Lee’s not listening.
“Until you win a Super Bowl, until you’ve got it on tape week to week, it means nothing,” Lee said. “That’s all hype. If we lean on that hype, we’re never going to be good.”
The Cowboys are counting on this playmaking pair to be good.
Dallas won three straight games last season when both were sidelined by season-ending injuries — Lee with a badly damaged toe in the sixth game at Carolina and Carter with a dislocated elbow on Thanksgiving against Washington.
But the defense ultimately faltered without them. The Cowboys couldn’t stop Drew Brees’ passing game and got run over by Washington rookie Alfred Morris in a pair of season-ending losses that kept them out of the playoffs for the third straight year.
Carter and Lee aren’t watching anymore, though.
They’re at the center of a defensive makeover that started soon after the season, when the Cowboys fired defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and replaced him with Monte Kiffin so they could return to the more linebacker-friendly 4-3 defense after nearly a decade in the 3-4.
“When you’re playing the 4-3 defense, those … (linebackers) are protected a little bit more,” coach Jason Garrett said. “They gotta get to the football and make plays.”
Both have shown they can. Lee has a knack for interceptions, something that was sorely missing last season on a defense that tied a franchise low with seven. Lee has that many in 35 career games, a high number for a linebacker.
Carter could have led the Cowboys in tackles last season if he hadn’t been injured. His strength is speed, and he’ll get his best chance to show it in the new scheme because one of the weakside linebacker’s biggest jobs is running down plays away from him.
“I think guys are doing it well,” Carter said. “Coaches kind of introduced us a little slow just to get guys the whole grasp of the whole scheme. Now we’re out here just flying around, getting to the ball.”
Carter and Lee joined the Cowboys a year apart and followed similar paths.
Both were second-round draft picks who played quite a bit as rookies but never started. Both earned starting jobs going into their second seasons. When Lee injured his toe last year, Carter took over the defensive play-calling on the field.
Even though he missed the final five games, Carter’s first season as a starter did plenty to help him prepare for a leading role.
“A whole lot more comfortable,” he said. “The more years you play, the more experience you gain, it just makes the game a lot slower for you. Especially for me, a guy coming off an injury.”
Lee has missed at least one game in each of his three seasons after an injury-filled career at Penn State.
Last year’s injury — when he got his foot stuck awkwardly in a pile — came after he had a career-high 21 tackles against Seattle and just a week after he tripled his career best in quarterback pressures with six.