The worst fears have been realized.
The Cowboys announced via their website Tuesday night that linebacker Sean Lee will have season-ending surgery on his toe next week, robbing the team of one of its most important defensive players in the middle of a stretch that will go a long way toward determining their final place in the standings this season. While the team still has plenty of good defensive players, it's hard to understate the magnitude of this loss.
Lee was essential to the team's run defense, racking up tackles and occupying blockers that freed up other defenders to make the ones that Lee couldn't make on his own. In pass defense, Lee's athleticism enabled him to stick with tight ends as well as rush the passer. On top of everything else, Lee called the signals for the defense on every play.
That's a lot to lose with one player on a unit that has been a strength for the Cowboys most of the season. It's even more to lose a few days ahead of a meeting with the Giants that the Cowboys really need to win to keep alive any serious thoughts of winning the NFC East this season.
Bruce Carter has played well this season, but you have to wonder if taking over the defensive signal calling and big picture responsibilities that come along with it will slow Carter down on the field at all. Dan Connor will take over for Lee in the starting lineup, a role he can handle in a more workmanlike fashion than what Lee brought to the defense. There are also reports that the team will sign Ernie Sims, a former top 10 pick who has busted in three other stops, to round out the depth.
There's still enough talent on hand for the Cowboys to be a good defense over the final 10 games of the season. It's going to take a different approach from Rob Ryan to put that talent into positions where they can succeed because it isn't plausible to just say that DeMarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff, Anthony Spencer and others can just do a little bit more when they're already doing just about everything they can to help the team shut down opposing offenses.
It's a big test and it looks like one that the Cowboys will have to pass with flying colors to keep this season from being another in the long line of disappointments that's been building for far too long in Dallas.