Sean Lee joked about the questions in December.
“I think you’ve tried to run me out of here a couple times,” the Cowboys linebacker quipped Dec. 23 to a reporter when once again he was asked whether this season would be his last.
But indeed, Lee confirmed in a retirement letter on Monday, it was. After 11 seasons, the Cowboys’ second-round selection of the 2010 NFL draft is retiring. ESPN’s Todd Archer reported the news first.
“For 11 seasons I was privileged to wear the Cowboys star,” Lee wrote in his letter. “We want to play forever. But today, it’s my time to walk away.”
Lee completes his career with 802 tackles, 60 tackles for loss, 14 interceptions, two forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries in 118 career games. He started 92 games, all for the team that drafted him.
But injuries, from the torn ACL to lingering pesky hamstrings to 2020 core muscle surgery, plagued Lee’s career. He opted to return for 2020 after playing all 16 games in 2019, an availability Lee’s health rarely allowed him to approach. He joked to the training staff in his farewell letter: “Lord knows you earned your money working with me.”
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Dallas Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee (50) on the sidelines against the New York Giants at AT&T Stadium. (Photo: Matthew Emmons, USA TODAY Sports)
Lee said Dec. 23 he’d oscillated on the decision in previous seasons as well.
“But the problem is anytime I go on the field and I get to play, and you make a couple of plays, you’re like, ‘Well, I like this too much,’” Lee said before his final NFL game. “And that is my problem: I love this game too much. I love this organization a lot. And I love playing and I love playing the position, linebacker.
“I joke to my wife that I’m addicted to it at times.”
In three different seasons, Lee registered a game with 18 combined tackles, a mark no other Cowboys defender has notched, according to Pro Football Reference.
“Whenever I’m near a field, the smell brings me back to when I first started playing, pulling on a helmet, trying on those shoulder pads, that perfect tackle,” Lee wrote.
The Cowboys return starting linebackers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch and signed Keanu Neal, a hybrid linebacker-safety who head coach Mike McCarthy says will begin with the linebacker room. Ex-Falcons coach Dan Quinn replaces Mike Nolan as the Cowboys’ defensive coordinator.
Smith’s 154 tackles in 2020 more than doubled the second-most productive player on a historically bad Cowboys defense, but his consistency has declined since his 2018 career-best season. Vander Esch has been mostly productive while on the field but battled neck and spine injuries. The Cowboys have yet to decide whether to exercise his fifth-year option.
With Lee retiring, the Cowboys’ linebacker room loses a player whose film study consistently bettered players around him. Healthy or injured, Lee said, he took pride in urgently chasing Cowboys wins with his teammates.
“To the fans, you lifted me up when I needed it most,” Lee wrote. I didn’t want to let you down. If there’s a regret, it’s that I never helped bring a championship back home, because you deserve it so much.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.
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