Cowboys tap several sources to fill Witten’s leadership void

Cowboys tap several sources to fill Witten’s leadership void

OXNARD, Calif. (AP) — Sean Lee responded with strong words to criticism from former teammate Dez Bryant.

Tyrone Crawford felt compelled to tell the team these Dallas Cowboys won’t be in the business of dramas such as Bryant’s Twitter-fed rant early in training camp over who he felt was responsible for his offseason release.

With tight end Jason Witten’s sudden retirement after 15 years for a TV job, the Cowboys can’t defer to the franchise leader in games, starts and catches on any number of topics. Crawford, a defensive lineman, doesn’t think they can replace the 2012 NFL Man of the Year either.

“If you’re being real with yourself, Jason Witten’s one of the best ever to do it,” Crawford said. “And if you knew him as a man, one of the best men you’ll ever get to meet. To me, there’s never going to be another Jason Witten that’s going to be around me.”

Still, the Cowboys have to figure out life without Witten’s leadership. Ask around, the answers will vary.

Quarterback Dak Prescott is a natural choice, both through leadership skills he demonstrated before replacing Tony Romo and the fact that the 25-year-old is already going into this third season as the starter.

Lee, now Dallas’ only offensive or defensive player in his 30s (he’s 31), always used to wait until the end of the week to address reporters in the locker room during the season. There’s talk of him moving that up to be more visible, and the 2016 All-Pro has left no doubt he knows things are different without Witten.

Center Travis Frederick and Zack Martin, who just signed a contract making him the highest-paid guard in the NFL, come up as well. But Frederick stops short of the idea of leadership by committee.

“Committee makes it sound like it’s a huge group of guys,” said Frederick, who started all 80 games in his first five seasons. “Traditionally in a team like this, you have a group of captains that are a strong group of leaders, maybe five, six guys. I think you’re going to find that here.

“But there’s been a lot of guys in training. I think that Dak is one of the guys that’s most naturally a leader that I’ve ever been around in my life.”

Bryant shockingly called Lee a “snake” on Twitter while suggesting the ninth-year linebacker had a hand in the club’s decision to move on from its career leader in touchdown receptions.

Equally shocking was Lee’s response, acknowledging that he and Bryant had been at odds over Lee’s feeling that Bryant wasn’t always accountable. Lee even suggested Bryant still wasn’t holding himself accountable. It was the first time Lee had been forced to defend himself on such terms, and he left no doubt how he felt.

“I’ve been in a leadership role for a long time now and I need to take it to that next level,” Lee said. “But there’s also, we have a core group of guys. We have a lot of guys where it’s easy to be a leader on this football team because of how many great leaders we have, all the way through, from the top to bottom.”

Crawford, a seventh-year player who has been growing into a leadership role over several seasons, wasn’t happy that the team found itself in the middle of an unexpected tiff.

“When it comes to things like that and getting focused, I get angry and I say what I want to say and that’s what it is,” Crawford said. “I feel like I need to say the right things at the right time and I do and that’s it.”

When Prescott became the starter because of a preseason back injury sustained by Romo two years ago, he spent half that season repeating that it was Romo’s team. Somewhere in the middle of an 11-game winning streak, though, the conversation changed. The qualities to lead were already there.

“It’s just about finding new ways to lead and it’s going to continue to evolve each and every year — every year that I get more experience and I get older,” Prescott said. “New ways I can come in contact with my teammates, motivate them or do whatever I have to do to get the best out of them.”

Asked specifically about what Witten’s departure meant for Lee’s leadership role, coach Jason Garrett almost cut off the question.

“Witt was the guy who was out in front, the most veteran guy, incredibly well-respected guy,” Garrett said. “But all these guys have been grasping that mantle for a long time. There’s no one guy that can lead as a player. It just doesn’t happen that way. You have to have it throughout your team.”

The Cowboys had some tangible proof during the first week of training camp.

NOTES: Dallas placed rookie WR Cedrick Wilson, a sixth-round pick, on injured reserve with a shoulder injury and signed rookie Ricky Jeune out of Georgia Tech.

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