It was a move that had been fiercely debated among Cowboys fans and within the media since the moment the 2017 season ended. Not Week 17 in Philadelphia, but Christmas Eve against the visiting Seatle Seahawks. It was there that Dez Bryant‘s poor play and subsequent tantrum proved to be the final nail in the coffin.
But let’s shift gears first and go back to the beginning. When he was drafted in the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft out of Oklahoma State, Dez Bryant was anoited the sacred Cowboys receiver number of 88. It was a number worn by greats such as Drew Pearson and Michael Irvin. Also, it was worn by Antonio Bryant before he threw his sweaty practice jersey in then-coach Bill Parcel’s face, but let’s not go there. 88 is a sacred number and only those the organization deems worthy of its prestige are allowed to wear it. The moment he was drafted, Dez was dubbed worthy. And it’s hard to argue he’s been anything but worthy. As a Dallas Cowboy, Dez Bryant had 531 catches in 113 games for 7,459 yards and a franchise record 73 touchdowns. He’s also thrown a touchdown as of the 2016 season, but that’s neither here nor there.
Dez balled out through his first few seasons in the NFL, racking up a ridiculous 301 receptions for 5,424 yards and 56 touchdowns. Simply put, the man earned his money. But since Dez signed his 5-year $70 million contract in the Summer of 2015, making him the 2nd highest paid receiver in the league, the expectations have not been met. Bryant had already been one of the league’s best receivers, and coming off an incredible 2014 season that saw him rack up 88 catches for 1,320 yards and 16 touchdowns. It seemed like a no-brainer that it was time for the Oklahoma State Cowboy to get paid. The problem? Everything that came after.
Oh, and for those wondering, I won’t be detailing Dez Bryant’s off the field issues throughout his career as I’d prefer to keep this simply about his on-field production, which was about as great as any Cowboy receiver ever.
Before the 2015 season could even begin, Bryant broke his foot in training camp. The injury would hamper him, causing him to play in only 9 games that season before being shut down. Dez finished that year with 31 receptions for 401 yards and 3 touchdowns. Injuries happen of course, but lower-body injuries are particularly troublesome, as the injury Bryant suffered was one that NBA star Kevin Durant had just the year prior gone through as well. In Durant’s case, it took about a year to get back to his previous form, but with Bryant, more injuries continued to pile on. A broken leg in 2016 versus Chicago in Week 3 cost the receiver just 3 games but affected his development with then-rookie Quarterback, Dak Prescott, who was thrust into the starting role after both Tony Romo and backup Kellan Moore suffered injuries. Prescott and Bryant would never fully gel, and the result would be career-low numbers for Dez Bryant in 2016 and 2017.
Dez’s 50 catches in 2016 were the second-lowest of his career in which he played at least 10 games, and his 69 catches in 2017 were the lowest since his second season in 2011. His receiving yards in 2016 were also the lowest of his career with the lone exception of his rookie year, and 2017’s 838 yards were the second lowest of his career (2015 excluded due to injury).
The result of this was a 3 year stretch into a brand new 5-year deal that saw Bryant produce a total of 2,035 yards and 17 touchdowns. Compare that to Bryant’s 2014 season that more or less inked the deal in the first place, and you see why Dallas felt it wasn’t getting its money’s worth.
Whether the problem with Dez Bryant in Dallas post-2014 rested with the team’s shift offensive scheme, becoming a run-dominant attack (which to be fair started in the 2014 season) and less of the “chuck the ball downfield” identity that had spawned 3 straight 8-8 seasons (all with Bryant), or if he was simply held back by a young, 4th round Quarterback not known for his accuracy is all debatable. To me the sum of all of these parts is true. The coaching staff has stubbornly stuck with its conservative, over-simplified approach, never asking Dez to run more than a handful of routes. This is why in part it wasn’t just Dez who struggled in the receiving corps last year. None of the guys created separation and the coaching staff never really shook things up to create that space. The obvious other side of this coin is, indeed, the play of Dak Prescott.
Prescott is a cool, calm competitor but he’s never been an accurate QB. Sure, he has shown growth in just about every season since first arriving at Mississippi State as a freshman, but when he took the reigns from a retiring Tony Romo, it became evident that Dallas would have to fully embrace its ground-and-pound offensive philosophy. With Romo still under Center, Dallas possessed a deep ball threat from one of the league’s most accurate and underrated passers in history. Without that added threat, teams adjusted to Dak Prescott after Year 1 and dared the young Quarterback to beat them deep. Perhaps in time he will be able to, but Year 2 was a down year for Prescott due to this limitation to his game.
In truth, it would’ve been difficult for Prescott to top his numbers from his rookie season, a year in which he went 13-2 as a starter (ignoring the Week 17 game in Philly in which he played just one series in a meaningless game) and passed for 3,667 yards and 23 touchdowns against just 4 interceptions. What’s more, he did so while completing 67.8% of his passes. But even when Prescott started strong in 2017 from a statistical standpoint, his downfield passing and accuracy clearly continued to waiver. This undoubtedly played a role in Bryant’s declining numbers, but so did Bryant’s own injuries and the offensive scheme.
If Dez had spent the past few seasons fine-tuning his route-running ability rather than relying on his freakish athleticism, his game would’ve aged better even with the injuries he suffered. What’s more, he would’ve been able to create more space and provide a better target to Prescott, who was forced to complete a lot of passes in 2017 in tight-window coverage. In fact, Prescott had the best passer rating in the league against tight-window coverage in 2017, but continually have to face such coverage is far from ideal.
Even still, Bryant’s place in Cowboys history is unchallenged. He is the franchise’s All-Time leader in touchdown receptions and in the top 5 in just about every other receiving category. It hurts now, obviously, parting the way he and the team have, but he is more than worthy of one day having his name and number up in the Ring of Honor at AT&T Stadium.
It’s a shame it had to come to this, and Dez unquestionably has scores of loyal fans who are tearing their hair out and screaming bloody murder at Jerry and Stephen Jones right now. But, in the long run, this to me was the logical decision. Whether Bryant was capable or not of still producing 2014 numbers, the team’s identity and Quarterback no longer gelled with the strengths in his game. So what was Dallas to do? Continue to pay the man as the second-highest paid wide receiver in the league, all the while knowing he would only produce at about 40% of that money’s worth and be financially strapped as they try to win now with a rookie-contract QB? Odds are, it couldn’t have worked that way. If Dez Bryant still has a lot left in the tank, he’ll now have his chance to go elsewhere and prove it.
And who knows, maybe he pulls a DeMarcus Ware and wins a Super Bowl in the next couple of years. It’s certainly conceivable depending on where he lands.
After their meeting at the Star, in which Bryant was cut, Cowboys owner, Jerry Jones said the following:
Dez and I share a personal and professional relationship that is very strong, and he is one of just a handful of players with whom I have become that close to over the past 30 years.
This was not an easy decision. It was made based upon doing what we believe is in the best interest of the Dallas Cowboys. We arrived at this crossroad collectively with input from several voices within the organization. Ultimately we determined it was time to go in a new direction.
The move saves Dallas $8 million and likely indicates the team is giving serious consideration to acquiring Earl Thomas or someone like him during the Draft.
For his part, since signing his 5-year deal, Dez has not recorded more than 69 catches or 838 yards in a season. Still, his receiving yards were good enough for fifth-best in franchise history, putting him just behind the likes of Jason Witten, Michael Irvin, Tony Hill, and Drew Pearson.
The move seemingly was telegraphed by the Cowboys when Stephen Jones began publicly suggesting the team would have to talk with Bryant about taking a pay cut before next season. Specifically, he sighted growing frustrations within the organization of Bryant’s sideline antics, which were seen in the aforementioned Seattle game in 2017, and a perceived decline in skills. To many, this was nothing more than Jones angling for negotiating leverage, but it appears as though the option of a pay cut had been removed from the table before Bryant sat down with Jerry. If that’s the case, truly marks a change of direction for the franchise as it will now likely look to draft a wide receiver in rounds 1 or 2 to compliment a corps of Allen Hurns, Terrence Williams, Cole Beasley, Ryan Switzer, Deonte Thompson, and Noah Brown. Whether that’s for the better or not remains to be seen.
It’s a shame, really, that Dez Bryant’s career in Dallas could’ve been so different if only the league’s catch rule hadn’t been screwed up in 2014. If Dez’s catch, which was ruled a catch on the field at the time, had been allowed to stand, and Dallas had held on, it would’ve set up a rematch with the Seattle Seahawks, whom they had already beaten in Seattle that season, for a chance to go to the Super Bowl. Instead, the call was overturned and Dallas’s championship window was effectively closed. DeMarco Murray left for Philadelphia that Summer. Tony Romo retired after the 2016 season. And now, the last of the 2014 triplets, Dez Bryant, has been released. It’s the end of an era, one that has been tumultuous, at times aggravating, and throughout the greater part of it, dazzling.
Dez Bryant may no longer be a Dallas Cowboy, but he will forever be etched in Cowboys lore.