Loss of Lee shows Cowboys' frailty

IRVING, Texas -- Jason Garrett will never cave. Publicly, he will never allow that he has a worry about anything. His job. His team. Injuries. Climate change. The Texas Rangers' pitching staff.

On Tuesday, Garrett saw his best defensive player, linebacker Sean Lee, likely go down with a season-ending knee injury in the Dallas Cowboys' first organized team activity of the offseason.

He spoke without emotion about Lee's injury and what it could mean to the Cowboys' defense, in particular, and the team, in general.

Away from the television cameras, I asked Garrett if he ever takes the time for an "Are you kidding me?" moment. The coach is entering the final year of his contract and needs to win likely without Lee. And the injury comes on the heels of a season in which the Cowboys had to use 20 defensive linemen in part because of injury and they lost Tony Romo for the winner-take-all season finale against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Perhaps he is wired differently than everyone else but he never really answered the question, or perhaps he knows showing any sign of concern publicly will do him no good.

He does not believe those are "productive emotions."

Instead of talking about Lee's injury, the conversation centered on the promising return Tuesday of Romo to practice -- albeit in a limited fashion.

"He executed the plan that we had for him," Garrett said of Romo. "He did some of the team stuff in the walk-through format. He did some of the team stuff in kind of a team takeoff format. He threw some of the individual routes. Wanted to keep him out of the competitive stuff against the defense. That was full speed, like we're doing with a number of the other players who are coming off injuries. Thought he had a good day from what I could tell. Be fun to watch the tape and see how he really did."

But Lee's injury speaks to the frailty of the Cowboys' season.

Lee is the Romo of the defense. A defense that was last in the league in 2013 will likely now be without Lee, DeMarcus Ware, the franchise's all-time leader in sacks, and Jason Hatcher, who led the Cowboys with 11 sacks in 2013.

Their top free-agent signing, Henry Melton, is coming back from a torn ACL and won't practice full-time until training camp. Anthony Spencer is coming back from microfracture surgery to his left knee and stands to open the regular season on the physically unable to perform list. They hope defensive tackle Amobi Okoye, who did not play last year because of a personal medical issue, can help.

Last year injuries forced the Cowboys to use four middle linebackers: Lee, Ernie Sims, Justin Durant and DeVonte Holloman. Finding a backup to Lee was one of their priorities, which is why they drafted Anthony Hitchens in the fourth round.

But he has never played the position before. He played weak-side linebacker at Iowa.

Time, at least, is on the Cowboys' side as opposed to last year when they were searching for a replacement on the fly.

It's only late May and the Cowboys will not play a game for real until September. They will have plenty of time to figure out how to replace Lee. They have eight more OTAs after Tuesday. They have a three-day minicamp from June 17-19. Then they have training camp practices and four preseason games.

Maybe Hitchens can fill in. Maybe they look to Holloman in the middle once more, or look to Sims, who is available as a free agent, or another free agent.

None of them will be Lee.

The tenor of the practice changed after Lee got hurt. There was a silence for a few seconds as teammates saw Lee on the ground. They know how important Lee is to their success.

"Sean's been as committed and hard-working a teammate as I've ever been around," Romo said. "I love the guy like a brother. He's the epitome of what you want in a football player. You always know Sean's going to give you 100 percent. Anytime you can get as many of him as you can on a football team, you've got a great chance."

After those seconds, the practice continued, but the coaches weren't as loud and the players weren't as energetic, although Garrett might disagree.

"One of the things that we talk to our players about probably on a daily basis is mental toughness, is being your best regardless of circumstance," Garrett said. "And our players hear me say that, we preach that maybe more than anything and Sean Lee embodies that. Whatever the circumstances are somehow, some way he's going to be his best for himself and for this football team. He's a great example and we think that's very important. And we think that's probably what separates him as a player and a person."

Now the Cowboys will likely have to be at their best regardless of circumstance.