Despite having a 3-3 record, there have been very few bright spots on the Dallas Cowboys' roster thus far in 2012. Sean Lee was the shiniest of all, and he had emerged as the team's least replaceable player not named Tony Romo.
I speak in the past tense because ESPNDallas.com's Todd Archer is reporting that the team's best defensive player may need surgery that will cause him to miss the remainder of the season. Lee suffered a toe injury in Sunday's narrow victory over the Carolina Panthers.
It's hard to describe how crucial Lee was to the Cowboy's success thus far. If not for his presence, I'm fairly confident the team would not still be in the thick of things with a 3-3 record.
He was among the top five tacklers in the league on a per-game basis and had missed only two tackles over the course of the first six weeks. Pro Football Focus had him rated as the second-best inside linebacker in football, despite the fact he missed a large chunk of Sunday's game.
Dan Connor is a reliable veteran. He can substitute for Lee, but he can't replace Lee, who had also emerged as a key leader and was a defensive captain.
Connor has taken just 68 snaps this season—21 of them coming in the Carolina game, per PFF. He didn't do a bad job against the Panthers, but he's struggled a bit against the run and can't cover as well as Lee.
Lee is the primary reason why the Dallas linebacking corps has been a place where running backs go to die. Football Outsiders reports that only one team in the league (Miami) has been better than the Cowboys at shutting down backs when they reach the second level.
Lee and Co. have held opposing running games to 90 or fewer yards in four of their six games thus far.
This Dallas team has been saved by Lee and Bruce Carter and the rest of that front seven. They've made it easier on an adjusting defensive backfield and an offense that has scored fewer points than all but four teams.
I'm not saying they'll go from great to terrible without Lee, but the fact that Lee has been great is the primary reason why the team is still floating.
With Lee no longer a factor, opposing offenses will be able to establish a lot more balance against these guys, which could be the difference between floating and sinking.