Sean Lee could've played in that season finale. And probably would've played well.
And now he'll play in the 2016 Pro Bowl. And he'll probably play well there, too.
Lee on Wednesday earned his first career Pro Bowl selection, being added to the roster as an injury replacement for Kansas City linebacker Justin Houston. Lee missed the entire 2014 season with a torn ACL, but the playmaking linebacker appeared in 14 games this year, totaling 155 tackles at weakside linebacker. He'll join Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin and Dan Bailey as Cowboys Pro Bowlers in the Jan. 31 game at Hawaii, and yes, Dallas now has more All-Stars than wins ... a regretable note from a 2015 season that ended in a cap-heroic way.
"It was me who decided to not play," Lee told me after scratching himself just before the season-ending loss to the Redskins. "It was 100-percent my decision.''
Lee first felt a hamstring problem on Thursday. Even right before that Sunday game, he went back and forth on whether to participate. He swears to me finances we not a concern ...
"I have a fantastic contract," Lee tells me. "The Joneses have been extremely gracious. They've been very patient with me because of injuries in the past, so I'm very grateful to have the contract I have. To me, I'm going to be playing for the Cowboys next year, a great franchise, making a ton of money, so I'm not too worried."
But Lee's sacrifice here means he doesn't receive a $2-mil bonus for playing time -- which also means "the Cowboys next year'' have $2 mil more to play with to make Sean Lee's team better than this season's 4-12 edition.
"It didn't feel like I was going to be effective enough to help the football team,'' Lee says sincerely. "Thursday on 7-on-7, Ididn't warm up well enough and kind of tweaked the hamstring. The problem was it was a little too close to the game.''
Lee says he he experienced the issue trying to cover a wheel route, and he mentions the name of "Hitch'' (young linebacker Anthony Hitchens) as a guy capable of replacing him on that Sunday and he did try to push himself in pregame warmups at AT&T Stadium.
"If I had a couple extra days I probably could've played, but ... I felt like I was not going to be effective and not going to be able to help the team,'' he says. "I'm not going to disrespect my teammates and my coaches and be out there not playing the right way.''
Now, Lee has those "couple extra days'' and given his approach, will almost certainly be very "right'' in the Pro Bowl. Lee deserves the respect of teammates, coaches and Cowboys Nation for doing something else the right way. He tells me he did not discuss with the Joneses the $2-mil-escalator issue. And Jerry confirms this. But that doesn't mean Lee was unaware of it.
Some financial and medical background here:
Back in 2013, the Cowboys knew Lee deserved a new deal, but the particulars were where the questions resided. Lee was obviously Dallas' best young defensive playmaker, but his career had been littered with various injuries that kept him off the field for chunks at a time. Lee fell to the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft after a collegiate ACL injury, and missed 13 games over his first three years to a myriad of ailments. Even of the 35 games he played, he missed time in several of those as well, or played hurt. Knees, neck, hands ... no Sean Lee body part was safe. So Dallas ponied up, giving him an overall deal that could reach the level of other prime-time inside linebackers like draft-class mate Navarro Bowman. Except Dallas included playing-time escalators; Lee would have to play 80 percent of his previous season's defensive snaps to bump up that year's salary.
So, nope, Sean Lee doesn't get his $2 mil. But he gets something else that is special: A berth alongside the greats of the game -- right where he belongs.