OXNARD, Calif. — Blame for the Dallas Cowboys missing the playoffs last year often centers around quarterback Tony Romo.
But perhaps overlooked is the absence of five defensive starters heading into the season finale, which the Cowboys lost to the Redskins in a showdown for the NFC East title.
The biggest loss might have been linebacker Sean Lee, the quarterback of the defense who missed the final 10 games because of season-ending toe surgery.
In fact, his return this year can’t be overstated.
Lee arguably has surpassed Pro Bowl defensive end DeMarcus Ware as the best player on defense.
What is certain is that Lee is the most important defensive player in terms of leadership, instincts and passion, infectious traits that translate to the rest of the team.
“He’s the bell cow of the defense; he’s outstanding,” coach Jason Garrett said of Lee.
“Sean’s just an outstanding football player. He’s got great instincts for the game. He sees things. He diagnoses plays. He loves the game. He loves the game maybe as much as anybody I’ve ever seen.”
Lee has carried that passion to the practice field since the start of training camp, and it was most evident in Friday’s 19-17 preseason loss to the Oakland Raiders.
On the third play from scrimmage, Lee had a sack and forced a fumble that led to a Cowboys field goal.
“He’s so committed to getting himself and our team better,” Garrett said. “His standard for himself and for everybody else around him is really high. Nothing’s ever good enough.
“… In a real positive way, he’s got an obsession with being great. He’s got a great passion for the game, and it shows up. His instincts are rare.”
Lee, a second-round draft pick in 2010 out of Penn State, doesn’t shy from the praise or expectations. He admittedly wants to be great and wants to be the leader of the team. But he puts it all on work ethic, personal accountability and studying the game.
“It’s hard for me to not go full speed because I only have one speed,” Lee said. “I practice at a high level because I think that is the only way it transfers to a game. You have to practice the same way you play in a game because it’s muscle memory. You practice hard, you play hard.
“If you study offense and know how teams attack you, you can anticipate before the snap and put yourself in a better position to make plays. It’s a combination of that and having a feel for the game.”
Lee’s feel for the game was at the root of the team’s decision to move from the 3-4 to the 4-3 defense in the off-season under new coordinator Monte Kiffin.
The Cowboys studied personnel and felt they had a lot of defenders who fit the 4-3, none more so than Lee, who is considered the perfect middle linebacker and a possible play-making star similar to former Bears standout Brian Urlacher.
“Sean is one of those guys that can probably play well in any defense,” Garrett said. “Having said that, he has some history playing this style of defense in college, and he is a guy who can run to the football. Any time you can protect a player like that from those big linemen coming out at you, he is just going to make more plays.”
Lee has worked hard at learning the new schemes this season, even spending time with former Cowboys linebacker Dat Nguyen earlier in camp to pick his brain about the 4-3.
“He loves the game,” said Nguyen, now a San Antonio radio personality. “He wants to do everything he can to be successful. He doesn’t want to leave any stone unturned, so conscientious, such a student of the game.
“He’s a coach’s dream. You can tell that the game is very important to him and he wants to be very good at it.”
Lee was on his way to a great season in 2012 before the injury. His 77 tackles through six games still ended up being the fourth most on the team.
The Cowboys feel so good about him that they have expressed interest in signing him to a long-term contract extension. His rookie deal expires after this season.
The key for Lee is staying healthy and putting a full season together. Knee and hamstring injuries sidelined him for two games in 2010. He missed one game in 2011 and played with a cast for much of the season because of a dislocated wrist.
“Potential means nothing until you put on tape week to week, until you are there for a full season, playing for the playoffs and a chance to go to the Super Bowl,” Lee said. “… I not only need to be be out there, I need to be effective and making plays.”
If he stays out there, he will be effective and making plays.
He’s the bell cow of the defense.