IRVING, Texas -- Two weeks ago, Cowboys team doctors cleared Sean Lee for full offseason football activities following the neck injury that knocked him out of most of the final four games in 2013.
That’s a good thing, because with the release of DeMarcus Ware on Tuesday, Lee will have to bear the weight of being the face of the Cowboys' defense.
From just about the day Ware arrived in 2005 as a first-round pick through 2012, he was the Cowboys' best player on offense or defense. He could do -- and probably will show people this year he still can do -- anything he wanted.
His 117 career sacks are a franchise record. He came up a half-sack short in 2011 of becoming the first player in NFL history with two 20-sack seasons. If anything, the Cowboys are choosing to cut ties with a player a year too early as opposed to a year too late with Ware.
It is their right, and their salary-cap woes made the decision even easier.
But now Lee will be the face of the defense.
The Cowboys signed him to a six-year extension worth $42 million last summer that could accelerate to $51 million if he can stay healthy.
Those last five words shadow Lee the way Ware shadowed quarterbacks. He missed five games in 2013 with hamstring and neck injuries. He missed 10 games in 2012 with a serious toe injury. He missed one game in 2011 with a dislocated wrist but played the bulk of the season with it wrapped up like a club. He missed two games as a rookie in 2010.
Lee is everything that coach Jason Garrett wants in a player. He is tough, accountable, unselfish and talented. He knows the score. He knows he has to stay on the field for the Cowboys to have a chance to make the playoffs.
He can change games like Ware can, just in different ways. He has 11 interceptions in his career, two returned for touchdowns. He is a tackling machine. He is the brains of a defense. He can make sure other defenders are lined up in the correct spot. He can cover up their mistakes, too.
Ware could (can?) change games with his burst off the line of scrimmage and by pressuring the quarterback. He could (can?) do things athletically that men his size should not be able to do. He was (is?) the perfect combination of speed and power.
For nine seasons with the Cowboys, nobody did it better than Ware. He helped Greg Ellis, Anthony Spencer, Jay Ratliff and Jason Hatcher reach the Pro Bowl because he drew so much attention from offenses.
Tuesday marked the end of an era with the release of Ware and the beginning of another in a way with Lee.