IRVING — In an example of the leadership and attitude the Dallas Cowboys will miss, linebacker Sean Lee talked to the media Thursday for the first time since it was revealed he must undergo season-ending toe surgery and was placed on injured reserve.
Lee, the team leader in tackles and the quarterback of the defense, is disappointed, but doesn’t feel sorry for himself.
He said he will be back better than ever next season.
In the interim, he will help his teammates as much as he can and believes they can still improve and have a successful season without him.
"It was frustrating because you want to be out there," Lee said.
"It’s one of those things. It’s part of the game. You have to be positive because if you’re negative you’re not going to get any better. My view is you’ve got to take the next step and that’s just working on getting better."
Lee said he initially didn’t think the injury was that serious, but that was before his foot swelled up the Monday after the Carolina game.
"I didn’t think it was going to be something that I’d be out for the rest of the season, especially with the way it happened, a fluke play where trying to make a tackle, their tight end lands on my foot as I’m driving, falls over the pile, bends my toe all the way back to my foot," Lee said.
Lee said there was no avoiding surgery. He will be sidelined three to four months after the surgery but should be healthy by February.
Lee won’t be on the field, but he plans to help Bruce Carter, who will take over the play-calling, and Dan Connor, who will replace him in the starting lineup.
In the season opener, tight end Jason Witten served as an inspiration to his teammates. Sunday, he hopes to mean even more.
Witten played in the season opener against the New York Giants, a day after being cleared after sitting out with a lacerated spleen. Witten had two catches for 10 yards, but the Cowboys credited him for playing a big part in their 24-17 victory.
"It went down to the last minute," Witten said Thursday. "Obviously, looking back at this film, there is a lot of emotion with that. Probably not the healthiest I’ve ever been. It was a big win for our team to go on the road and beat them."
Witten lacerated his spleen Aug. 13 in the preseason opener on a hit by Oakland linebacker Rolando McClain. He returned to noncontact work in practice the week before the season opener, but he wasn’t cleared until seeing a specialist in New York the day before the game.
He played in his 140th consecutive game, though it was not his best game. In playing 53 of 68 plays, Witten had as many penalties (2) as catches and more penalty yards (15) than receiving yards.
He has 33 catches for 320 yards and a touchdown this season. Only Dez Bryant has better numbers, 36 catches for 378 yards and two touchdowns. Miles Austin has a team-leading four touchdowns.
Running back Felix Jones returned to practice Thursday, though he was limited. Jones missed Wednesday’s practice with a bruised knee.
Jones is expected to start for the Cowboys on Sunday against the Giants. DeMarco Murray will miss his second consecutive game with a foot injury.
Jones was the only change to the practice report Thursday.
Linebacker DeMarcus Ware (illness) did not return to practice as he said he would. Center Phil Costa (ankle) also did not practice. He is wearing a protective boot and using crutches.
The Cowboys were without safety Matt Johnson (hamstring) and defensive lineman Sean Lissemore (ankle). Center Ryan Cook (hamstring) and linebacker Anthony Spencer (pectoral) were full participants.
Editors Note: Keep track of the Dallas Cowboys (and opponents) injury status HERE.
IRVING — Because of injuries to others, Dallas Cowboys running back Phillip Tanner has taken plenty of practice snaps this week with the first-team offense.
The second-year back considers himself ready, if needed, to make his first NFL start Sunday against the New York Giants. But the former free agent draws the line at declaring himself comfortable in that role. Or any role in professional football.
"I’m never comfortable. That’s what kills you, when a guy gets comfortable and complacent," said Tanner, who had a career-high 13 carries in last week’s 19-14 victory over Carolina in relief of injured teammates DeMarco Murray (foot) and Felix Jones (knee). "I still come in every day as if I’m a free agent trying to make this team. I study film as if I’ve never seen it before. I take notes as if I’ve never read it before. Just so I can stay on my toes and won’t become complacent …So if I was good at 13 carries, I’ll try to be better at 14. And on and on and on."
That work ethic, coach Jason Garrett said, offers comfort to the Cowboys if Tanner — a third-teamer with 44 career carries for 137 yards — handles most of the workload Sunday against the Giants with Murray out and Jones on the mend. Jones practiced Thursday on a limited basis and, barring a setback, is expected to start Sunday.
But if Jones cannot play or cannot finish Sunday’s game, the spotlight shifts to Tanner. And Tanner’s primary backup would be rookie Lance Dunbar, a free-agent signee from North Texas and Haltom High School whose lone NFL carry covered 11 yards in the team’s 31-29 loss at Baltimore on Oct. 14.
Dunbar said the undrafted duo can handle a showdown with the reigning world champions, if necessary.
"I’m pretty confident in myself and I’m confident in him," Dunbar said. "If that happens, we’ll approach it like, ‘OK, we can do this. It’s just another game.’ We’d play our game and let it happen."
And their games differ greatly.
Tanner (5-foot-10, 217 pounds) offers a blend of power and speed that teammate Tyrone Crawford likened to Doug Martin, Tampa Bay’s first-round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. Crawford, a defensive tackle, played at Boise State with Martin and said Tanner "reminds me of Doug [because] they both run low, powerful and with good vision. He’s a smash mouth back with speed and it’s good to have him."
Dunbar (5-foot-8, 191 pounds) is more of a breakaway threat who is dangerous in the open field.
"His quickness is sick," fullback Lawrence Vickers said. "He’s great with the ball."
Regardless of who plays running back against the Giants, the Cowboys seek to match the ground-and-pound production they had in a 24-17 victory over the Giants on Sept. 5 (143 rushing yards, including 131 by Murray) and in their past two games. Dallas rushed for a season-high 227 yards against Baltimore and collected 85 against Carolina while controlling the clock for 33:37.
Against the Panthers, Tanner (13 carries, 30 yards) handled the ball seven times in the final 7:32 on drives that resulted in a go-ahead field goal with 3:28 remaining and another to pad the lead with 58 seconds to play. Tanner touched the ball nine times in the fourth quarter (eight carries, one catch), including a 5-yard trap play on third-and-9 that preceded the go-ahead field goal.
"He’s on our team for a reason," Garrett said, praising Tanner’s ability to handle a bigger role in an emergency situation. "At every turn [since signing with Dallas], he came in here and said, ‘You are not cutting me from this football team.’ When he’s gotten more opportunities in the preseason or the regular season, he’s shown us he can do a good job for us."
Tanner’s biggest opportunity could come Sunday if Jones’ knee ailment elevates Tanner into the starting lineup. It would be a moment the Dallas native, who played at Kimball High School, has envisioned since signing with his hometown NFL team on July 28, 2011.
"The most important thing I’ve learned is always be mentally prepared. Just take it to practice every day as if I’m going to be the starting running back," Tanner said. "That’s been my mind-set since the first day. Just to work hard and jell with the offensive line as if I’m the starting running back. So that when my time came, I would be ready."
Vickers said the Cowboys’ ground game can be productive Sunday even if it leans on a Tanner-Dunbar tandem against the Super Bowl champs.
"Absolutely," Vickers said. "Every back in that backfield is ready to go at all times. We’re preparing to make sure we can be a dominant group and hold up our end on the football field."
IRVING, Texas — Growing up in Plano, Texas, Charlie Peprah was a Dallas Cowboys fan. Emmitt Smith is the reason he’s playing football now.
So when Peprah walked into the Cowboys locker room this week after signing a contract, the safety was living the dream.
"I love the Cowboys," Peprah said. "Once I was employed by the Packers, they became the enemy and I could care less about them, other than that, that was my squad. That’s the reason why I started playing football was Emmitt Smith. That’s why I wore 22 in high school. To be here is cool to become full circle. I would love to finish my career here, it would be great. Just something you thought wouldn’t actually happen, but I’m glad it did."
After graduating from Plano East High School, Peprah went to Alabama and played in 50 games. In 2005, he was a second-team All SEC selection at defensive back. He was a fifth-round pick of the New York Giants but didn’t make the roster and signed with the Green Bay Packers. He played with the Packers from 2006 to 2008 and then spent one season, 2009, with the Atlanta Falcons. But in 2010 and 2011 he returned to the Packers and earned a Super Bowl ring.
In the offseason, Peprah underwent arthroscopic knee surgery and his recovery took a while. He turned down opportunities to sign with several teams, including the New York Giants, and he took physicals for the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears.
But nearly two weeks ago, a healthy Peprah worked out with 14 other players at Valley Ranch. The Cowboys said of the defensive backs that worked out, he was the best.
This week, the Cowboys made the move official.
"I mean that’s the business and once (the surgery) happened, my main focus was to get healthy before I throw myself out there," he said. "That was the hardest thing for me is to not bite on some of the opportunities that were out there coming my way."
Peprah will see limited work on special teams and certain defensive packages to give Danny McCray a break.
"I’m trying to learn the defense and contribute in any way I can," he said. "The goal for me is obviously be a starter, but who knows what plans they have for me."
There’s no doubting that the Cowboys lost one of their most valuable players this week when it was announced Wednesday that Sean Lee was being placed on the injured reserve with a toe injury.
Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was so upset over losing the team’s leading tackler that he was driven to tears, according to his brother, New York Jets coach Rex Ryan.
While discussing Jets linebacker Bart Scott’s toe injury on Wednesday, Rex Ryan said, “My brother was crying, literally, on the phone because they just lost their great linebacker to a toe injury.”
Rex Ryan, who is known for delivering witty remarks, could have been exaggerating. But knowing how valuable Lee is to the Cowboys’ defensive game plan, he might have been telling the truth.
Rob Ryan will likely give his side of the phone conversation on Friday, when he usually speaks with media members at Valley Ranch.