FRISCO, Texas — As they made the long walk from the locker room to the buses outside MetLife Stadium on Monday, tight end Jason Witten and linebacker Sean Lee couldn’t help but congratulate each other on a job well done after the Dallas Cowboys‘ big 37-18 win over the New York Giants.
They have been teammates for nine years and have experienced some of the same highs and devastating lows, which has made their relationship closer than most. Their maniacal drive to succeed bonded them. Their willingness to lead set examples in the locker room for a combined 26 seasons.
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Witten is 37. Lee is 33. Neither is signed beyond the 2019 season, which made Monday’s win a little more special.
“I would challenge you that we’re still the same players that we’ve always been,” Lee said. “We feel that way. But to go prove it week in, week out, that’s part of getting older. You do need to work and show it and maybe prove some people wrong at times.”
Starting at weakside linebacker for an injured Leighton Vander Esch, Lee was credited with 12 tackles and a pass deflection Monday. His work on Saquon Barkley helped limit the Giants’ dangerous running back to 28 yards on 14 carries. Barkley caught six passes for 67 yards, and 65 of those came on a screen pass in the fourth quarter, with Lee dropping Barkley for a 7-yard loss on one completion.
Lee played 61 of 72 snaps, his highest total of the season and the most he has logged since 2017.
Playing in front of his former ESPN Monday Night Football coworkers, Witten caught a season-high eight passes, his most in a game since Week 15 of 2017. He had only 58 yards, but two catches went for first downs, and another set up Brett Maher‘s go-ahead field goal attempt on the final play of the first half. Witten’s blocking also helped teammate Ezekiel Elliott run for a season-high 139 yards.
“We’ve got a lot of respect for this game and understand [how it works],” Witten said.
What Witten and Lee mean to the Cowboys locker room is difficult to define, but teammates’ reactions to their successes against the Giants illustrate it best.
“Sean Lee, man, the general,” Jaylon Smith said. “I mean, he’s a player. He’s a guy that can still play. Everybody talking about hanging it up. He’s done. He’s done. As long as he’s healthy, Sean Lee is Sean Lee. So for us, we love him.”
Quarterback Dak Prescott said of Witten: “Showing up to work and working with that guy, I’m not going to put any kind of limit on him. I’ll never be the guy who says, ‘He’s got a year. He’s got two years left.’ He’s a true pro. He takes care of his body and does everything the right way. He controls his destiny. Barring any injuries, he can play as long as he wants. He’s impressive.”
Last week, Witten said he had not given a thought to how much longer he wants to play. Lee contemplated retirement after last season, when he missed eight games because of hamstring strains. He made his decision to return for his 10th season, even with a reduced contract and reduced playing time, before Witten opted to return.
“But what clinched it more was when he came back, just because of the influence he’s been on me and the type of person he is,” Lee said. “Wanting to win with him and win a championship with him, that’s been a dream of mine. That’s a dream [for] a lot of players who play with him because of how great he is and how much he helped us.”
Witten and Lee know there might not be many more walks like Monday’s inside MetLife Stadium, which is why they might have savored it just a little bit more.
“It makes it a helluva lot of fun to come back and go to work,” Witten said. “There’s a lot of joy in that. You hear me say that, but it really is, and Sean’s a big part of that. I feel like when you have success, you can feel that he’s pulling for you, and when you have some adversity, he’s there to lean on. Every play, he’s pulling for you. All the other guys are, too. When people are genuine like that, it makes it a lot of fun.”