OXNARD, Calif. – Sean Lee waited 15 months to be cleared for every segment of practice after the oft-injured Dallas linebacker tore a ligament in his left knee in the first offseason workout of 2014.
When the moment finally came a little more than a week into training camp, Lee played it low-key.
The sixth-year player is a little weary of injury talk after missing 23 of the past 24 games for the Cowboys - playoffs included - with knee, neck and hamstring injuries. And that's not counting the 10 games he sat in 2012 with a badly damaged toe.
"They have been progressing me a certain way," Lee said after his first 11-on-11 work Sunday. "I felt great the whole time. I haven't played football in a long time. This was a nice first step."
Lee tore his right anterior cruciate ligament at Penn State and was available to Dallas late in the second round of the 2010 draft in part because of his history with injuries. He was told at the time of the first surgery that his left knee was basically a tear waiting to happen, which it did last year when he engaged rookie lineman Zack Martin in a non-contact drill.
A year later, Lee was moving around normally during the offseason, but not getting any closer to the action than walkthroughs and some individual work. The gradual plan continued in California with Lee working into some seven-on-seven drills.
While he acknowledges that age and the accumulation of injuries makes it a little easier for him to accept the methodical approach to rehab, he still found himself trying to talk his way into some goal-line work the day before trainers and coaches finally approved it.
"You'd rather have the guy who wants to get in there and you have to pull him back than the other guy, who you're trying to push out there," coach Jason Garrett said.
"Sean has certainly been the former of those, and he still is that way. There's a level of trust and communication with him, and I think he understands the plan really well."
Although unlikely to play in the preseason opener at San Diego on Thursday night, the 29-year-old Lee should be on track to play in the exhibition season. The regular-season opener is Sept. 13 at home against the New York Giants. It would be Lee's first game since Dec. 9, 2013, at Chicago.
"When he is out there on the field, things change," executive vice president of personnel Stephen Jones said. "I think we are doing it the right way. We are doing things in a way that he gets better every week."
When healthy, Lee is one of the most dangerous linebackers in the league with 11 interceptions in 46 games. Problem is, the pace doesn't mean much for a player who has missed three-fourths of the games going back 2- years.
"You can't buy into the frustration of injuries. If you do, you come back worse," said Lee, who had a career-high 131 tackles in 2011, the closest thing he had to a full season when he started 15 games. "The less you focus on the frustration, the more you can focus on the unbelievable opportunity you have in front of you like I do."
The Cowboys traded for Rolando McClain in an emergency move before training camp last year, trying to replace Lee. McClain restarted a dormant career with a solid season and re-signed.
But the plan to have McClain stay at middle linebacker with Lee on the weak side, his natural spot, could change for two reasons. McClain still hasn't practiced at camp and doesn't have a timetable for a return from offseason knee surgery. And he has to sit the first four games for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy.
"Sean's one of those players we can play him at any linebacker spot in any defensive scheme and he'd play great," Garrett said. "You could say the same thing about Rolando and some of the other guys we have. But with a guy like Sean in our scheme you like to give him a chance to move and run and make a lot of hits on the ball."
NOTES: QB Tony Romo skipped Monday's practice, the third time for him to sit out at training camp after finally getting a regular offseason with his surgically repaired back. ... CB Brandon Carr had surgery on a broken right hand Monday in the Dallas area and was expected to rejoin the team Tuesday. ... Garrett said RB Darren McFadden could make his camp debut for the Cowboys at Saturday's practice.