Sean Lee might be getting ready to play his first real game in nearly two years, but the linebacker never left the Cowboys. He’s been immersed in every aspect of the defense since going down with an ACL tear
IRVING, Texas — After a Tuesday morning practice at Valley Ranch, Sean Lee was in a hurry to get to the film room. He was carrying two containers of lunch to go, and didn’t even take the time to put his shoes on. A hallmark of the linebacker’s game is his ability to anticipate where the ball is going, and making plays starts with this kind of preparation off the field. Lee is also known for something less favorable: being injury-prone. But going into a new football season and preparing for his first regular-season game in nearly two years, Lee is hoping his luck changes. He’s moving with ease on the Cowboys’ practice field, with no brace and no outward signs of the left ACL injury that sidelined him for the entire 2014 season. Standing barefoot outside the linebackers’ meeting room, Lee talked to The MMQB about his long-anticipated return.
VRENTAS: There are less than two weeks until your first game in almost nearly two years. How do you feel?
LEE: It’s exciting being back with everybody, being able to go through the process of camp, but it’s all about preparing. Focusing on preparing the right way, and that’s where a lot of my confidence comes from.
VRENTAS: You seem to be moving around well, with no brace on your knee.
LEE: The knee is not an issue at all. It’s more getting the reps, getting used to football again, conditioning, and playing 60 to 70 plays. That’s something I’m continually working on.
VRENTAS: When middle linebacker Rolando McClain returns from his four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy, how can the two of you play off each other?
LEE: Watching ‘Ro’ last year was a ton of fun. The way he played, the passion he played with, how well he played. Any of those two positions, [middle and weakside linebacker], we have to be able to go out and make plays, and I think the two of us can do that. Hopefully when we get him back, that whole room can produce. We have a ton of guys in our linebackers room who I think are great football players and who want to fulfill their role.
VRENTAS: You were moved to weakside linebacker this year. How different is your job in that position compared to when you played at middle linebacker?
LEE: It’s similar to some of the things I’ve done in different defenses in the past. In certain calls, there are responsibilities that are similar to the ‘Mike.’ But there are new things I have to learn. Every position is different. It’s just continuously going through all your formations, all your alignments, and all your reads, and just trying to get those perfect so that when game time comes, you are ready to play fast. You can make a lot of plays from both the ‘Mike’ and the ‘Will.’ Coach [Rod] Marinelli always says the star of the defense is the defense. My goal is to maximize whatever my role is on a particular call.
VRENTAS: When you tore your left ACL last spring, you said that it had been partially torn since your senior season at Penn State in 2009. How did you play five years with a partially torn ACL?
LEE: The knee held up. I had torn the right one [in 2008] and came back, then I partially tore the [left] one against Temple my last year at Penn State. Took about three weeks off, and was lucky to play the rest of that season and a couple more years after that. When I first tore it, it would every once in a while kind of buckle on me, but it got stronger and stronger. I spent a ton of time working the muscles around it, the quad and my glutes, to make sure that joint was stable. But we knew it was a matter of time for that knee to fully tear. It was one of those deals where I had a lot of great trainers that have helped me along the way to keep those muscles strong, then I had a ton of great physical therapists and people here at the Cowboys helping me to come back strong. I’ve had a lot of injuries, obviously, but I think I’ve shown the ability to come back from them and produce after those injuries. It’s just staying on the field has been an issue, obviously.
VRENTAS: When you had the surgery last spring, did the surgeon tell you how much of the ACL had been left?
LEE: It’s hard to say, but doc says there wasn’t too much left of that ACL. He could kind of tell when he went into that joint that it was hanging on. So I got pretty lucky.
VRENTAS: How has the rehab from your second ACL surgery been different than the first?
LEE: It’s a little bit more complicated of an injury than the first one. There was probably more damage. But it’s like any other injury—it’s a long road, and you have to continue to work hard every day. You go through valleys, and there are plateaus, and you get very frustrated. But for me, the sooner I could get the negative thoughts out and focus on the rehab, the better for me. Staying part of a team really helped me. The coaches were gracious; [linebackers] coach [Matt] Eberflus was gracious to have me in meetings. The more I could sit with the team, the more motivated I was to come back.
VRENTAS: How much worse was the damage this time?
LEE: There were some meniscus issues, but it’s stuff that, when you tear your knee, you deal with. It’s back, my knee is 100 percent, and it feels great.
VRENTAS: How much do you hate the “injury prone” tag?
LEE: That’s part of the deal. It’s one of those things where I try not to focus on it too much, because some of the injuries you can’t control. So I control what I can control, focus on what I can do to get better, and after that, it is sometimes out of my hands. Yeah, I want to play every game. But my focus is on maximizing my role, doing everything I can to stay healthy, and off the field taking care of my body. I can’t go overboard on it. I’ve been injured a lot. Until I can stay on the field for an entire season, or a couple seasons, it’s going to be there.
VRENTAS: How involved were you with the team on a day-to-day basis after getting hurt last year?
LEE: Being in meetings and going through the process of game-planning. You can always learn, and mentally you can get better with your game. I didn’t travel to every game. I was rehabbing so much, on the weekends I wanted to stay off the knee. But toward the end of the year, when the knee was ready to go and felt good, I was able to travel. I came to the game here, where we won the division against the Colts, went to Washington, and then went to the two playoff games.
VRENTAS: What were your emotions watching that playoff loss in Green Bay, and how has it set the table for the 2015 season?
LEE: It was tough. The locker room was tough; the plane ride home was tough. I was on the sideline. It was obviously a great play by Dez [Bryant], and sometimes that’s how it goes [the non-catch call]. Green Bay played a great game, and I don’t think we want to make the game out to one play. Aaron Rodgers was able to do a lot in that second half, so they won the game. But it’s one of those losses where we are motivated to come back from it, get in that same situation again, and hopefully have a different result next time. We felt like we could continue to get better, we can put ourselves in positions like that, and hopefully we can get over the hump and keep winning. But we have to put the work in.
VRENTAS: You did something similar during your first ACL surgery rehab at Penn State, when you spent the 2008 season as sort of an undergraduate assistant coach. You attended every practice and wore a headset on the sideline. How did that develop your understanding of the game?
LEE: That was huge. It was similar. It set up a template on how to do that, and how to stay involved with the team, and how I can still get better even though I am not on the football field. The coaches up there were great with me and allowed me to help out and stay involved and I tried to mimic that same process [last year]. I might not be playing, but I can still find a way to get better.
VRENTAS: You are a very instinctual player. Did that experience help hone that?
LEE: I’ve had a lot of great coaches, in college and here in the NFL. It’s preparation-based. Continue to watch film, understand your position, understand some of the weaknesses of your defense and how teams will attack you.
VRENTAS: You were just the second linebacker to intercept both Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Instincts?
LEE: Those guys are incredible players. Sometimes you are in the right place at the right time with those interceptions.
VRENTAS: You’re one of two Penn State starting linebackers in the NFL to be making a comeback from knee surgery this year. The other, of course, is San Francisco’s NaVorro Bowman. Is there a kinship between you two?
LEE: Oh, definitely. He played his first game back in the preseason when we were out in San Francisco, and he looked unbelievable, as always. I’ve been rooting for him. That injury, I was so mad when it happened; I felt so bad for him. But I knew he would be back. I have watched him a couple times this preseason, and he looks great, and he’s going to have a great year. I’m excited for him.
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