The 2014 season was quite possibly the apex of Dez Bryant’s career to this point. He logged a career high 16 touchdowns, breaking the Cowboys record for most receiving touchdowns in a season, he made his first playoff appearance, nearly had a career high in yards, and was named First Team All-Pro for the first time. One might argue that the fact that it was a contract year had something to do with that performance, and there may be some truth to that, although statistically his production was almost identical in 2014 to the 2012 and 2013 seasons, and it’s likely that the accolades only started to roll in as a function of overall team success that was missing in those other seasons.
Following that 2014 season there was an extended contract dispute that went all the way up until the deadline to sign franchise tagged players in July of 2015. Bryant stayed away from the team during that time and did not take part in offseason activities until training camp. In the first game of that season he fractured his foot, and while the timeline given was 4-6 weeks, there was speculation that the actual timeline may have really been 10-12 weeks following his first surgery in September.
Julio Jones, who had a similar injury, seemed to imply that the 4-6 week timeline would be too quick of a return as well. Nonetheless, on November 1, seven weeks removed from the injury, Bryant returned to a team missing Tony Romo and starting Matt Cassel at quarterback. The Cowboys were 2-4 and needed a boost before Romo’s impending return, and Bryant hoped to provide that boost.
In hindsight, it was a mistake. Anybody that watched Bryant play during that time could tell that he wasn’t his usual self or 100%. This isn’t revisionist history or making excuses, he simply wasn’t moving as he normally would. Just a few days after the season ended in January of 2016 Bryant had a second surgery, this time on both his foot and ankle, and was in a walking boot for over a month.
That certainly doesn’t sound like someone who was in any kind of shape to perform on the football field at the highest level. The fact that he spent nearly all of 2015 catching passes from Matt Cassel and Kellen Moore only confirms that there is nothing meaningful to draw from Bryant’s 2015 performance aside from that he suffered a serious injury.
Going into 2016 Bryant hoped to rebound from the worst season of his career. There was no Tony Romo, but Bryant had caught two preseason touchdowns from rookie Dak Prescott, so there was hope. However Bryant started off the year slow in Week 1 with only one catch for eight yards against the Giants, including failing to come down with a jump ball in the end zone, a play that had been a signature of his throughout his career. He had a strong bounce back game in Week 2 with 102 yards receiving, but in Week 3 he suffered yet another injury, this time a slight hairline fracture in his knee.
Three games and five weeks later he would return against Philadelphia, but he quickly showed that 2016 would not be 2015 as he posted over 100 yards receiving, along with a game-tying 22-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
Over the next eight games (not including the final game of the season where the starters barely played) Bryant was inconsistent but you could see his former greatness starting to come to the forefront, as well as a growing chemistry between him and Prescott. From the Philadelphia game through the Detroit game Bryant posted 39 catches, 646 yards receiving, and 7 touchdowns over nine games.
Extrapolate those numbers over a 16 game season and you have about 69 catches for 1,148 yards and 12 touchdowns.
That’s not far off from his 2012-2014 averages of 91 catches, 1,311 yards and 14 touchdowns per season, and all of that with a rookie quarterback without the benefit of the chemistry that he built with Tony Romo over several seasons, and after missing several games in the middle of the season that disrupted whatever chemistry that may have been built with Prescott early on.
The volume of catches is down a bit, although that’s understandable considering how Prescott was more careful with the ball as a rookie than Romo was as a seasoned veteran, but he actually averaged a higher yards per reception in 2016 than at any point over his career.
Then of course there was the playoff performance against the Packers where he put up 132 yards and two touchdowns, making huge play after huge play.
It’s not just the numbers though, Bryant made game-changing, signature plays after his return against the Eagles, Steelers, Ravens, Vikings, Lions, and of course against the Packers in the playoffs. Contested catches on jump balls downfield in traffic, fades down around the goal line, and physical runs after the catch. The type of plays Cowboys fans have grown accustomed to over the years.
The NFL certainly stands for “Not For Long”, so it’s understandable why many seem to have forgotten the type of talent that Bryant is and it explains why some have even suggested that he may not be in Dallas for much longer. There is no ignoring the injuries sustained over the last two years and of course you can’t continue to absorb $15+ million cap hits on a player if they’re injured every season, but Bryant deserves much more benefit of the doubt than to suggest that he should be a cap cut in the near future.
Yes, 2015 was a horrific season for him no matter how you slice it although there were obviously several mitigating circumstances. The injury to start off 2016 was certainly frustrating, but once you start to delve a little deeper into the numbers and the performances you start to see that he was nearly back to his normal self once he returned.
You can never predict injuries but if you could guarantee me that Bryant would play a full, healthy 16 game season in 2017, I’d say you can put another 75-85 catches, 1,200-1,400 yards, and 10-12 touchdowns in the bank.
He’s still an elite player in the prime of his career, he just needs to stay on the field to remind everybody of that fact.