FRISCO, Texas – This is a problem the Cowboys will enjoy having.
With the Cowboys settling into their preparations for Week 14, it sounds like they’ll be doing so with the help of Sean Lee, who is hopeful he can return to practice after missing most of the last month with a hamstring injury.
"I look at it obviously from its most positive way, and that is there's help on the way,” said Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones on Tuesday.
In a shocking twist, one of the stories of the last month is how well the Cowboys have played without their All-Pro linebacker. The same unit that fell apart without Lee has been thriving in the last four games, due in no small part to the outstanding play of Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch.
The two young linebackers are pushing for Pro Bowl consideration, as Vander Esch leads the team with 103 tackles and Smith sits right behind him with 88. In last week’s 13-10 win against the Saints, they combined for 19 total tackles.
This all asks the obvious question: how will the Cowboys incorporate Lee when he is healthy again? Will he return to his role as the starting weak side linebacker?
“Yes, and he needs to be -- you'll have a rotation, but certainly with a player of his stature, and you ask, 'Well, has he earned it,'” Jones said. “I've said the other day that Sean has had as much to do with how Vander Esch has evolved as his coaches have.”
Despite his injury, Lee has been a steady presence on the Cowboys’ sidelines and in their meeting rooms. And while helping his young teammates has undoubtedly been rewarding, Lee said last week that it pushes him toward the ultimate goal of contributing on the field again.
“It motivates me to get back, because I want to be part of such a great group – not only the defense, but with a linebacker crew that’s playing the way they are,” Lee said. “That’s a dream for me, to be able to play in a group like this. I’ve worked toward this for a lot of years, so being able to be part of this is something I want – especially with an opportunity to go to the playoffs.”
It remains to be seen if Lee will be available for Sunday’s game against the Eagles. That will likely be determined by how much he is able to practice this week, if at all.
When he does return, though, it will beg the question of how the Cowboys’ coaches manage all three linebackers. The last time all of them were healthy, during the Oct. 21 loss to Washington, Lee played 38 of 60 defensive snaps, with Smith playing 58 and Vander Esch playing 21.
Of course, that was six weeks ago – before Vander Esch had burst onto the scene as one of the Cowboys’ most reliable defensive playmakers.
Finding snaps for all three players could prove to be a bit of a challenge. But as they set out on the home stretch of the season, reiterated the point: adding an All-Pro linebacker into the mix is a fun problem to deal with.
“Sean Lee is, make no mistake about it, when he's right there's nobody better,” Jones said. “e's such an integral part of adjusting on the field and making the big play. And then you look at what we've got in Smith, you just got to have those guys out there on the field and it's a great problem to have."