In a desperate plea for attention that is the sportswriter’s equivalent of a leaked celebrity sex tape, Calvin Watkins asks whether the Cowboys should trade Dez Bryant. Deserved mockery follows. Still, like a Colombian drug mule who doesn’t want to know what’s in that balloon he swallowed, there is something valuable hidden in Watkins’ asininity.
THE CASE OF WATKINS V. COWBOYS FANS
The substance of Watkins’ column and the manufactured controversy that followed are the least interesting parts of the story, so I will deal with them very briefly.
Indulge me while I play Watkins’ court-appointed attorney for a paragraph. The column was inspired by a talk radio hypothetical presented by Bryan Broaddus. Broaddus is among Big Media’s most informed and sober Cowboy analysts. Broaddus’ question seems to be a professorial hypothetical, where the very act of thinking through a remote possibility is still useful for stimulating deeper analysis. If Al Davis valued Dez Bryant like Mike Lynn valued Herschel Walker, or like Jerry Jones valued Joey Galloway, would we want Jerry to slam down the phone? If trading Dez would allow us to move up and get Fairley AND draft Carimi or Sherrod late in the first round, isn’t that worth thinking about for an hour or so?
"Ah, but," says the prosecution. "Watkins’ grimy sensationalism is not cleansed by contact with Broaddus’ clean hands. Broaddus didn’t solicit Calvin’s escalation. Watkins is experienced enough that he had to know exactly what he was doing when he married Broaddus’ hypothetical with a bland comment from a Cowboys’ executive (‘We’d think about it’) and wrote about it as if it were a hot topic in the War Room. To carry the martial metaphor further: General Jones was running a training exercise dealing with hypothetical military responses to hypothetical Iranian aggression in international waters. Watkins reported it like the Pentagon was planning a ground invasion by April."
Verdict: Watkins is guilty of media hackery, and sentenced to indefinite confinement in the brig at Fort Werder.
Still, let’s ignore Watkins’ distracting "reportage" and do the thought exercise embedded in Professor Broaddus’ hypothetical:
1) In the salary cap era, the NFL’s most valuable assets are young stars who provide elite production while on their (comparatively cheap) rookie contracts.
2) NFL teams usually only trade cheap stars when they have significant baggage. The very act of putting a star on the market raises red flags that drive the market price down.
3) If we put Bryant on the market, the concerns that caused Bryant’s draft stock to slide would multiply. We wouldn’t get a Joey Galloway deal. We’d get (at best) a Braylon Edwards deal (a 3rd, a 5th, and two J.A.G.s).
4) Wide receivers rarely star as rookies. Those that do (Moss, Glenn, Boldin) rarely regress. And those that flash stardom in several games (Nicks, DeSean, Fitzgerald) typically seize stardom in year two or three.
5) After Bryant’s performance in the Meadowlands, NFL.com's Michael Lombardi wrote that when the NFL unveils its 100th Anniversary Team in 2019, Dez Bryant will be on the list. There’s no evidence Jerry bribed him to say this.
6) Baseball analyst Bill James writes that "You don’t win World Series by trading Hall of Fame players in their primes." The same has to apply to football. Even if Dez Bryant is a Charles Haley-level headache (and there’s no evidence he’s remotely like that), the Haley trade didn’t work out too well for the 49ers. It worked out damn well for the Cowboys.
WHAT IS OUR REALISTIC PATH TO THE SUPER BOWL?
Dez Bryant is the rare player who not even Jerry Jones can exaggerate his potential. This isn’t Martellus Bennett never-been-super-productive-at-any-level-questionable-love-for-the-game potential. This is franchise altering potential. My concern, which I unpack below, is that I think Bryant’s career is perched atop a teeter-totter that could go either way. As they say in poker, Bryant has a "polarized range." Lombardi Trophies or Coaches Fired. Avatar or Ishtar.
Bryant is the Cowboys most pivotal player if we are to win a Super Bowl. Notice I didn’t say Bryant is our "best" player. DeMarcus Ware is a vested asset that is already in the Anniversary Team discussion. Some people nitpick that his lack of killer instinct means "he’s no L.T. or Bruce Smith." They’re right. He’s more like Derrick Thomas, which barring injury is still a no doubt Hall of Famer. And saying "Tim Duncan isn’t wired like Michael Jordan" is a true-but-dumb criticism of Tim Duncan. We can absolutely win championships with Ware as our best defensive player.
Still, I don’t think our defense is what will lift us to an elusive championship. If you start digging into the stats from the Super Bowl winners since 1996, you’ll notice that champions profile one of two ways: Amazing Offense/Good Defense (Warner’s Rams, Brees’ Saints) or Good Offense/Amazing Defense (2007 Giants, 2002 Bucs, 2005/08 Steelers). Now, stop for a minute and think. No peeking ahead.
Looking at our current roster, which is our most likely winning profile? Are we Payton’s Saints or LeBeau’s Steelers? (Meditating…)
Right. I think we’re Payton’s Saints. We actually sniffed that offensive territory in 2007 and at the end of 2009. In the Garrett Administration, we averaged 30 points a game with Jon-effing-Kitna. But even Wade Phillips’ best defense was built on the statistical illusion of "Points Allowed." Both of our units need to improve, but the offense is much more foreseeably elite.
But here’s the thing. We don’t have a DeMarcus Ware on offense. Tony Romo is the offense’s best player, but at 30, he’s at or near his ceiling. Most neutral analysts rate him as the 5th-9th best QB in football (sorry, Terry). That’s good enough to win a Super Bowl with an offense heavy team, but it’s probably not good enough to win if Tony is our best offensive player. Consider the 2008 Cardinals, an offense heavy team with just-shy-of-super-elite Kurt Warner. Without the historical greatness of Larry Fitzgerald, they don’t come within inches of the Lombardi trophy.
It may be true that "the inches we need are EVERYWHERE around us," but Larry Fitzgerald’s aren’t everywhere around us. Just as Kurt Warner needed Fitzgerald and Faulk, our offense needs a historically great weapon. Dez Bryant is the guy on our roster with that kind of potential. At his peak, Bryant could be the 2008 Fitzgerald mixed with the return game of 1995 Deion Sanders. He could compete with Tecmo Bowl Bo Jackson as a video game legend. He might even bring the spittle inflected nastiness that Romo and Ware lack but which great teams arguably need.
Ah, but I teased this as a Concern Post, didn’t I? Well, here they are:
1) Bryant isn’t nearly a Fitzgerald-level technician. Randy Moss is the only tall franchise altering wide out who succeeded in spite of this. Dez doesn’t quite have Moss’ talent but he also lacks Moss’ dark side. Moss never won a Super Bowl.
2) Post-Parcells, players rarely get publicly called out at Valley Ranch. When even gentle Ray Sherman publicly exhorts Dez to hit the books during his rehab, it suggests that he hasn’t been a bookworm to that point.
3) Dez plays a lot like Anquan Boldin after the catch. Boldin is very effective, but he’s also frequently injured. Bryant is faster, but that also means he’s absorbing even higher speed collisions.
4) I don’t miss Patrick Crayton’s mouth, but my sense is that he’s mostly right in his "they let him get away with a lot of things" assessment. With the new sheriff cancelling "Keeping it Real Thursdays," how will Bryant respond to tough love?
5) Plenty of professional athletes compete like Tasmanian Devils on the field but are classroom slackers. Terrell Owens. Allen Iverson. You know what they call those guys? Stars Without Rings. Bobby Knight put it best: "Everyone has the will to win, but few have the will to prepare to win."
6) Changing the culture around Valley Ranch means we need 47 players with the will to prepare to win. (See o.c.c.’s definitive post). That effort is frustrated by a megastar with an aversion to class work.
I’ve convicted Calvin Watkins. The Jury has just entered deliberations on Dez Bryant. Despite my concern, I remain optimistic. In a rare moment of insight, Patrick Crayton put it best: "He’ll get locked down and hopefully be the next Michael Irvin." At least.