IRVING, Texas – Sean Lee can't catch a break.
Another injury to the blossoming star patrolling the middle of the Cowboys' defense makes one wonder if his career will ever be as magnificent as it could.
Whether Lee or DeMarcus Ware is the best player on this Cowboys defense can be debated, but one thing is clear: There's no replacing Sean Lee.
Sure, new schemes will be drawn up and a variety of linebackers will take his spot in different packages. But the production the Cowboys received out of their premier inside linebacker, who's now out for the season with a toe injury, can't and won't be replaced.
Head coach Jason Garrett knows that. He lost the quarterback of his defense.
"I can't tell you how well he's been playing since he's been our starting inside linebacker," Garrett said. "He's the leader of the defense. He makes the calls. He plays the right way in practice. He plays the right way in the game. He defends the run. He defends the pass. He's a bell cow for us and a guy that really, really everybody on our defense and football team looks up to. He goes about it the right way and he's an outstanding person as well."
Just take his production against the team the Cowboys will face this weekend. In three games as a starter against the Giants, Lee has 34 tackles, a pass breakup and a forced fumble. He's getting better every season. Fourteen of those tackles and the forced fumble both occurred in the opener.
No Dallas player is near Lee when it comes to tackles. The league lists him at 58 combined tackles, 26 ahead of No. 2 tackler Bruce Carter. According to coaches' film, Lee's registered 77 combined tackles, with Ware's 43 tackles the next best on the team. He even has one of the Cowboys' two interceptions.
The bottom line is Lee's performing at a stunningly high rate, the likes of which can't simply be replicated.
The grim news that Lee would be out for the year came as a shock to everyone, especially after Lee said following the Panthers game he thought he'd be able to play against the Giants. Garrett said he thought it might be more of a four to six week injury, but surgery was deemed necessary, and it will be performed in the next week.
From knee injuries to wrist injuries to hamstring injuries to toe injuries, MRIs and surgeries are nothing new to Lee, who was forced to take a redshirt senior season at Penn State for a torn ACL.
"Talking to him yesterday, he's had injuries in the past and he's come back from all of them, both in college and here in the NFL," Garrett said. "He has such an intensity about him. He said, 'You know, I'm not getting down. I'm ready to go. I'm going be part of this football team and we're going to get this thing fixed. I'll be back before you know it.' So he just has that way about him in everything he does."
As great a champion as Lee can be on the sideline as a motivator, he's a much greater force on the field. The potential to go down as one of the league's best linebackers is evident. It's just a matter of longevity.
Garrett said Wednesday that injuries are a part of the season for all 32 teams. Some can be managed better than others. No doubt the Ravens feel a similar pain after losing Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb.
The season goes on whether or not a star player joins, though that doesn't make the loss any easier to absorb. The Cowboys and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will have some interesting and crucial personnel and scheme decisions to figure out how to move on without their workhorse in the middle.
"You rally around it," Garrett said. "You rally around it on defense. You rally around it on your football team, and Sean Lee's the kind of guy that will stay engaged in our football team, and we appreciate that about him. He will have a positive impact on our team, even though he won't be out there."