Taylor: Who would have ever thought the Cowboys would miss LB Bobby Carpenter?

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Taylor: Who would have ever thought the Cowboys would miss LB Bobby Carpenter?
By JEAN-JACQUES TAYLOR / The Dallas Morning News

Cowboys desperately need rookie LB Sean Lee to step up, give Keith Brooking a break

IRVING – Put your hand in the air and raise it high if you thought the Cowboys would still be trying to figure out a way to replace Bobby Carpenter a month into the season.

Raise it real high, if you did, because you deserve considerable credit.

My dad spent thousands of dollars on tuition for me at The Ohio State University, and neither one of us gave Carpenter a second thought once the Cowboys traded him during the off-season for Alex Barron.

Neither did you. No shame in that.

Carpenter didn’t do much here. Frankly, he’s the only real first-round bust the Cowboys have had this millennium.

Then again, perhaps Carpenter was a tad better than we thought because Keith Brooking is being forced to play way too much for a guy who will turn 35 next month.

Brooking, a warrior on the football field, is participating in virtually every defensive snap because the Cowboys can’t replace Carpenter as the linebacker in their pass defense.

Just so you know, St. Louis released Carpenter in August and he was subsequently signed by Miami. Of course, we call that Dallas East these days since they have so many former Cowboys in the front office, coaching staff and roster.

Brooking is doing a nice job, and the Cowboys lead the NFC in third-down defense. For the record, Brooking is never going to ask to take a play off, but the NFL is a young man’s game.

If Wade Phillips and his staff don’t find a linebacker to replace Brooking, then it’s unlikely his body will withstand the rigors of a 16-game season.

“I’m realistic about it,” Brooking said. “It’s probably not in my best interest to play every down if I’m not going to be at my best later in the year when the games are really important.

“If they find someone they have confidence in, then it would be OK – but I can still do it, if needed.”

It wasn’t supposed to be this hard, especially since the Cowboys drafted Sean Lee from Linebacker U – Penn State to most folks – in the second round, and promptly praised his intelligence and athleticism.

If Lee is healthy enough to play, as expected, against Tennessee next week, the Cowboys will probably try to use him on first and second down. Then Brooking could play on third down, and his play count might not get too high.

Earlier this week, Phillips said Lee wasn’t suited to play the nickel linebacker position.

Phillips said he was trying different players such as linebackers Jason Williams and Leon Williams and safety Danny McCray at that spot. McCray had an interception in the fourth quarter against Houston, but Phillips doesn’t seem thrilled with any of them.

Delve a little deeper at the club’s Valley Ranch training complex, and it becomes clear the Cowboys think Lee can handle the job once he gets some more practice time.

That’s understandable since he has twice missed chunks of practice time with leg injuries – the latest a strained hamstring suffered against Washington.

He returned to practice last week.

That said, the job the Cowboys need Lee to fill requires a special skill set.

The player must be fast and athletic enough to cover receivers, especially on crossing routes, when teams use formations with three and four receivers. And he must be a good enough tackler to take down elusive third-down backs in space.

He must also be big and athletic enough to cover tight ends man-to-man and intelligent enough to make the proper decisions when he’s in zone coverage.

It’s not an easy job.

Plus, third down is the most important down on defense. Coaches simply don’t want drives extended because a player made a mental mistake.

Too many plays like that, and even Phillips might use a four-letter word.

So Brooking plays. And plays. And plays.

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