Sean Lee has torn his ACL and will be lost for the 2014 season.
Another major injury for Lee isn't surprising but it's certainly frustrating. Lee has missed 15 games over the past two seasons and will miss 16 more this season. Lee recently signed a 6 year 42 million dollar contract for the Cowboys. The contract has escalators which could raise the total to 51m if Lee plays 80% of the cowboys defensive snaps. Needless to say, the Cowboys won't be paying out those bonuses.
But this story isn't just about Sean Lee and his injury problems. It's also about a particular draft strategy. Ultimately, it's about the loyalty of Jerry Jones.
During the 2010 and 2011 drafts, the Cowboys took 3 players with significant injury red flags. The Cowboys drafted Sean Lee in the second round of the 2010 draft with the 55th overall pick. They went on to draft Bruce Carter and Demarco Murray in the 2011 draft with the 40th and 71st picks respectively. Lee tore his right ACL in 2008 and sprained his left in 2009. Carter suffered an ACL injury in his left knee during his senior year at North Carolina and Murray suffered from a host of injuries his first three years at Oklahoma. The upside of the injury concerns was that the Cowboys were able to draft all three players with much lower picks than had they been healthy. Lee and Carter were both considered 1st round talent. Jerry Jones chose to gamble in these drafts. If all three players hit, each was like a winning lottery ticket. 3 elite players drafted outside of the 1st round. Cornerstones for a dynasty.
The NFL reality of each player has been somewhat true to the initial fears. In addition to Lee's struggles, Carter has missed significant time due to injury. Carter recorded only 5 tackles his rookie season as he recovered from the knee surgery and played sparingly on special teams. His second season he missed the final five games with an elbow injury. During his third, he remained healthy but regressed in the new defensive system. Demarco Murray has had several injuries limiting him to 13,10 and 14 games in each of his three seasons. Still, when healthy, each player has had times when they played like an elite player. Sean Lee is a dominate defender, Carter showed flashes of greatness during his second year and Murray has been one of the most efficient running backs in the league since becoming a starter.
Games missed since start of 2011 season
Sean Lee 16
Bruce Carter 12
Demarco Murray 11
It's difficult to judge whether this gamble has been a succesful draft strategy. All three players have been contributing factors in Cowboy's wins for the last few seasons. But all three have certainly contributed to losses by not being available. Would the Cowboys have won more or less games had they drafted three different healthier but less dynamic players? I'm not sure. Looking at other backers and running backs drafted in similar slots in those two drafts isn't any more definitive. They certainly didn't misfire and skip over a 1st ballot HoF player. At least... not as far as those two drafts and those two positions. So the question remains, would the Cowboys be better off with less talented, but healthier Starters?
Which brings me to the last part of the story. The amazing loyalty of Jerry Jones. It's shocking, really. It's easy to paint Jerry as a modern (and possibly creepier) Al Davis. A doddering fool with incorrect but galvanized ideas on how to run a team. But I think it's much simpler in reality. Jerry loves these players. He shows over and over again how loyal he can be towards “his”. Arkansas roots run deep with the man, and there have been many players over the years who only speak about Jerry in glowing terms. How many owners would still be employing Jason Garrett? How many would have stuck with Wade Phillips for as long? The contract Sean Lee signed is a product of this Loyalty. Jerry spotted Sean in the draft. He watched other GM's pass on Lee. He saw what Lee “could” become. And so Jerry made Sean Lee one of “his”. Sean excelled when healthy and exemplified what it meant to wear the star. Jerry responded to this kind of loyalty with loyalty of his own. 6 years, 42 million.
Sadly, this remarkably human and positive trait has a dark side which punishes the Cowboys as an organization. 6 years is insane for a fragile player. 42M is insane for a fragile player. Signing Barry Church to a 4 year extension worth 12 million while he was still out from a torn ACL is insane. Signing Tony Romo to a 6 year 108 million contract was insane. But that's the thing about Jerry. He doesn't seem to care about the money. He's become skilled at restructuring contracts year to year to keep the team afloat from a cap standpoint. He doesn't seem to care about injuries either. He just cares about potential and whether or not you are a Dallas Cowboy. He writes contracts designed to show his personal level of trust and commitment to the player.
It's a great trait in an owner, and a destructive one for a GM. The Niners and Seahawks aren't rushing to sign Kaepernick and Wilson to monster contracts. I doubt they'll make a serious effort until they have no other choice. Moreover, if either of those two players were to regress or be injured, the contract offered would reflect the decline, not the previous success. How many times have the Patriots cut or traded high priced players? Great franchises understand that rosters are messy. “Disrespecting” Wilson and Kaerpnick gives those teams the ability to surround their qb's with defenses and playmakers. Jerry has built a roster of superstars and scrubs. It's high on respect, but low... extremely low on depth.
Being a friend of Jerry Jones or playing for the man must be a bonafide treat. As a human being, I applaud the contract Sean Lee was given. I'm excited that the Cowboys have a leader who looks at players and sees what they “could” be. Unfortunately, you need more larceny in your soul if you're going to excel as a GM in professional sports. Perhaps the cutting of Demarcus Ware shows a change in the wind. Perhaps Mr. Jones is shifting to a less personal attitude as GM. He drafted Anthony Hitchensout of Iowa because his special teams coach told him he'd be a playmaker. Perhaps Jerry is beginning to rely less on his gut and more on the advice of experts.
We might be witnessing the evolution of Jerry Jones as GM. He's spent the last few months trusting others to help him make decisions. Could the loss of Sean Lee be the straw that finally brings true change? Could it bring the realization that his incredible loyalty can be harmful to the team? Anthony Hitchens might now have to be more than a special teams player. He might have to try and fill Sean Lee's shoes. How Jerry Jones adjusts the roster after the loss of Lee will tell us a great deal about where the franchise is headed. Has Jerry Jones evolved? Or will someone else reap the benefit of Jerry's loyalty, to the misfortune of the team.