Sham: With Many Departed Vets, Who Will Be The New Cowboys' Leaders?

The question came from a national radio interviewer, a respected and informed one, last week: "When the Cowboys need to have someone stand up in the room and take charge, who does that? Who are the leaders?"

Jason Witten came to mind, he said, "but [isn't he] kind of quiet[?]"

Fair question. This corner has thought all offseason that replacing the veteran leadership that left in free agency was one of the team's biggest challenges for 2017. Barry Church, Brandon Carr, Doug Free, Ron Leary … that's a lot of character, a lot of veteran presence and focus to replace all at once.

The good news for Cowboys fans may be that the replacing is in full swing.

First, my friend's observation about Witten: Just because he smiles on camera and does not rant and rave, DO NOT mistake the veteran tight end's demeanor. The modern version of Mr. Cowboy is made of flint and steel. He has a bark and a bite. He understands leadership inherently. He tests teammates constantly, in subtle little professional ways as well as obvious vocal ones. He knows all eyes are on him, and he welcomes it. If you don't think Jason Witten won't get in your grill one on one, or get up in a meeting and chew people out, you simply don't know Jason Witten.

(Just a little example of his subtle leadership: Perhaps you've heard the story of Dak Prescott's first rookie minicamp. The young quarterback threw the first pass he'd ever thrown in Witten's direction. It was a little high. Catchable with a leap and an extension. Witten did neither, but just looked at the rookie, who no one knew that day would turn out to be QB1. Prescott got the message right away: If you want to play in this league and be a success, you better find a way to put the ball on your receiver. You can't go throwing hospital balls.)

So the answer to "Who are the Cowboys' leaders?" begins with Jason Witten.

And it moves quickly to Sean Lee.

Coming off a season in which he was named All-Pro and to his second Pro Bowl, Lee might or might not acknowledge this (I've never asked), but the fact is there are some young men in that locker room who are just a little afraid of Sean Lee. As they should be.

Lee is the unchallenged, universally acclaimed leader of the defense. They call him "The General." Off the field, to the public, this is a man of the highest character, soft-spoken, apparently somewhat serious. Unfailingly polite and kind. The take-home-to-momma prototype.

At work? Part maniac. Do not cross. White-hot intensity. Super smart, instinctive, huge heart, demanding. Overcomes injury and does things that make teammates fear disappointing him. Makes others better.

Also, by the way, possesses what veteran teammate Justin Durant calls "a Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld kind of sense of humor." Asked if this is true, Lee grins impishly and says, "I'd agree with that." Born leader.

And the next in line is the man you'd hope it would be: the quarterback.

At this stage of last year's training camp, Prescott was competing with Jameill Showers to be the third-team quarterback. Every football fan knows what happened next. Prescott had to grab the reins and keep the stagecoach on the road on the dead run. He didn't have time to be anything but himself.

These eyes have only seen 39 of the 58 seasons of Cowboys football, so not everything. But you cannot find a young man more prepared to be The Guy, by force of will. None of us knows how he will eventually rate as a quarterback. As a leader, at that position, for this vote, he can sit in the row with Meredith, Staubach and Aikman. Already.

So that's three. Where will the rest of it come from, and how do you find it? Well, mostly it finds itself. There's a vivid memory of Troy Aikman, late in his career, on the practice field imploring tackle Larry Allen to step up and take charge. Wasn't the Hall of Famer's style. You can't make a person be a leader. Quincy Carter, the erstwhile quarterback, once told a training camp gaggle of reporters, "I'm the leader of this team." As soon as you say that, you're not.

Doug Free well prepared Travis Frederick and Zack Martin to run the offensive line room. You may not want to believe it, but Tyrone Crawford is widely respected at his position group. One of the above named leaders (it's not important which one) identifies DeMarcus Lawrence, and says Byron Jones and Jeff Heath have stepped into the biggest void, which is in the secondary, next to Orlando Scandrick.

Jones, in his third year, acknowledges that with Church and Carr gone, he and Heath have become more vocal. Especially Jones, since he's a third-year starter.

"I looked around the room and realized who wasn't there, and that I was going to have to do more than lead by example," Jones said after Tuesday's practice. "I knew I would have to be more vocal. But I'm comfortable with it. It's in my nature to lead."

Recent headlines notwithstanding, this is actually a trait the Cowboys look for when they select players, especially high in the draft. Asked how a coaching staff addresses a leadership vacancy in the player ranks, head coach Jason Garrett says, "You empower the leaders. We know who they are, who they can be. It's our job to empower them."

And it's working. The Cowboys have a players' leadership council, which meets regularly. The coaches have the task of picking a left guard and aligning the secondary.

The players are stronger when they police themselves. Just a few days into training camp, one of the biggest questions is in the process of being answered.

Brad Sham is entering his 39th season as The Voice of the Dallas Cowboys. The award-winning broadcaster is an inaugural inductee into the Texas Radio Hall of Fame.

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