FRISCO, Texas — Sean Lee’s first All-Pro season will end with the first trip to the playoffs for the oft-injured Dallas linebacker.
If that sounds like a breakout year, Cowboys tight end Jason Witten would argue otherwise.
“To me, it’s not like, oh, we’re seeing a different player than we’ve seen in the past,” Witten said. “I remember the first week, his rookie year, he was tough on scout team. He’s what you want your linebacker to look like.”
Lee missed Dallas’ only other trip to the postseason since he was drafted in 2010. That was two years ago, when the Cowboys beat Detroit in a wild-card game before losing at Green Bay in the divisional round.
The Cowboys (13-3) will meet the Packers in the same round Sunday. This time Dallas will be at home as the No. 1 seed in the NFC, and Lee will try to slow Aaron Rodgers, who has 19 touchdowns without an interception during a seven-game winning streak for Green Bay (11-6).
Lee never played in 2014 after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the first offseason practice. It was the third long-term injury for the former Penn State standout who slid to the second round in his draft because of another knee injury.
By the time that season ended, Lee had played in 46 games and been inactive because of injury in 36. But now he’s played in 29 of the past 32. It would be 30 if Lee hadn’t been held out of the regular-season finale at Philadelphia because the Cowboys had clinched the top seed.
“During a lot of injuries I’ve had, I said, ‘Hey, I have this great opportunity ahead of me to play on this great team with these great teammates,’” Lee said . “So that was really what motivated in times I was injured.”
Even though he knew he wasn’t playing against the Eagles, Lee kept his helmet on. And it wasn’t so much because he longed to say he played all 16 games. His career list is likely to show another “15,” matching 2011 for the only other time he came close to playing a full season.
Instead, it was Lee doing what others say separates him from many players: obsessing on preparation.
“As soon as they played the Rocky theme song, I was like, ‘You’ve got to get me in this game,’” Lee joked before explaining. “When I’ve had the injuries, the best thing I did was mentally I kept myself in it, situational. OK, I’m going to prepare like I’m playing this week.”
Lee set a career high in tackles each of the past three seasons he played, starting with 123 in 2013 before the knee injury, and 156 last season. After sitting against the Eagles, he settled for 173 and a team-high 12 tackles for loss this season.
The 30-year-old Lee was denied a second Pro Bowl bid, but not the All-Pro nod that carries more prestige.
“It’s good to see that recognition and the people kind of see it in the reflection because he has a lot of tackles,” Witten said. “That doesn’t define what Sean brings to this football team. I think it’s so much bigger than that.”
Dez Bryant’s famous catch that wasn’t is what most remember from the Cowboys’ 26-21 loss to the Packers two years ago. What most don’t remember is Rodgers’ offense keeping the ball for the final 4:06 after that play to preserve the win.
Owner and general manager Jerry Jones certainly does, particularly because Lee was on the sideline — and on injured reserve.
“I remember watching Rodgers take it down the field against us two years ago and wishing we had Sean Lee out there,” Jones said. “And I knew he was sitting over there pretty healthy. Now, I don’t know if he was ready to defend Rodgers. But it would have been probably good to have him in the game.”
This time Lee will be, after waiting seven seasons to experience the postseason.
“The anxiety level is low, but the excitement level is high,” Lee said. “I’ve missed a lot of football. I’m blessed to be healthy. I’m excited to be on this team and have this opportunity.”
Witten and others are excited for him.