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After Cowboys release Dez Bryant, what is his Cowboys legacy?

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In a monumental change for the Cowboys, Dez Bryant is gone, but what about his legacy in Big D?

NFL: Preseason-Miami Dolphins at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Dez Bryant ends his career with the Dallas Cowboys as the team’s all-time touchdown reception leader. In addition, he’s third in receptions and fifth in receiving yards. He’s earned both Pro Bowl and All Pro honors and yet at less than 30 years of age and with two years remaining on his existing contract his Cowboys’ career is over. How in the world did we get here?

Bryant was an exciting and enigmatic figure from the day he became a Cowboy. Considered the top college receiver going into 2009 his season ended prematurely when the NCAA ruled him ineligible due to their byzantine regulations. Bryant then declared for the 2010 NFL draft where he was considered the most talented receiver.

Denver was considered the most likely to draft Bryant but they passed with the #11 pick. As Bryant continued to fall the Cowboys recognized a chance to upgrade a position of weakness. Dallas traded up from the 27th spot to the 24th spot to snag Bryant, making the Texas native a Cowboy.

Dez immediately made waves by choosing number 88. Some loved the idea of yet another transcendent Cowboys receiver sporting the double-8’s while others bristled at a rookie claiming the same number as Cowboys’ legends Drew Pearson and Michael Irvin. Irvin, for his part, was a huge supporter from day one.

Like many rookie receivers, Bryant needed time to adjust to the professional game. Still, he grabbed 45 catches in 13 games for 561 yards and six touchdowns. He added two more touchdowns on punt returns before fracturing his ankle on a kickoff return against the Indianapolis Colts, ending his rookie season.

Bryant becoming an NFL star was an unlikely outcome for a youngster who emerged from a drug-and-poverty plagued upbringing, as outlined in this 2015 Rolling Stones feature:

The bad old days were charnel-house bad: a grandmother on crack and running the streets; his mother sellingcrack to raise her three kids, all of whom she’d had by 18; the stepmother’s house with the lock on the fridge. Here was a kid largely raised by his brother, who also happened to be his uncle; who knocked on neighbors’ doors to beg for food stamps; who shared a tiny duplex with more than a dozen people and slept wherever there was room for him on the floor. “Crackheads in my house, potato chips and peanut butter for dinner — my life was s*** all the way to college,” says Bryant.

Thus, it’s not that surprising that while Bryant was succeeding on the field as an NFL player he struggled off the field. It wasn’t crime or disciplinary measures that got him in trouble, but he did have issues with his finances due to some bad choices of those around him, and he ran into minor issues along the way.

And still Bryant excelled on the field. His 2011 season saw him catch nine touchdown passes and net nearly 1,000 yards in receptions. But it was his 2012 season when he fully blossomed into a true superstar. It would be his first of three consecutive 1,200 yard seasons with at least 12 touchdown catches. He netted Pro Bowl honors in both 2013 and 2014. His 88 catch, 1,320 yard, 16 touchdown season in 2014 earned All Pro honors and helped propel the Cowboys into the playoffs with a 12-4 record. His 16 touchdown catches that season set a Cowboys record.

Unfortunately, the most memorable moment of his best season was a controversial “drop” that spurred ridicule from outraged NFL fans who mocked the NFL’s inability to define a “catch”.

By this point Dez Bryant was universally acknowledged as one of the best wide-outs in the game. His production over his first five years in the league put him on a Hall of Fame pace. He was a beloved Cowboy, one of the top five players on a Super Bowl caliber team. He was embraced by Cowboys’ faithful across the spectrum.

He was also a free agent and, as such, rightly demanded a new contract that paid him like one of the best receivers in the game. The team, Dez and his representatives did the free agent dance but eventually all came to agreement on a deal that would guarantee Dez at least $32 million and could pay him $70 million in total.

Since that signing nothing has gone right for Dez or the Cowboys in terms of on-field performance. It all went wrong from his very first game in the 2015 season. Playing against the New York Giants Bryant suffered a “Jones fracture” of his foot and would miss the next five games. He would play the next nine games but with star quarterback Tony Romo also spending most of the season injured Bryant didn’t come close to reaching his usual All-Pro level production, ending with only 31 catches, 401 yards and three touchdowns.

It was an inauspicious first year on his five-year contract. Since, Dez has never looked like the dominating receiver that terrorized cornerbacks early in his career. His numbers from 2015 to 2017 are those of a good #2 receiver, not an elite #1 receiver. But he’s being paid to be an elite #1 receiver and thus we find ourselves bidding Bryant goodbye, with the distinct possibility we’ll watch Bryant thrive and produce for some other NFL team the same way DeMarcus Ware did with the Denver Broncos.

There has been a lot of discussion and breakdown about why Dez hasn’t been as good as he once was. Some like to claim he only succeeded due to the greatness of Tony Romo. Others point to Dak Prescott’s inability to utilize Dez Properly. No doubt injuries have played a role, as Dez has missed 10 of his last 48 games.

I watched video of every Dez Bryant touchdown catch with the Cowboys and I can say unequivocally his success was NOT due solely to Tony Romo. Watch the video and you’ll see both players were outstanding.

Yes, Romo was uncanny in throwing the ball where Dez could out-jump, out-muscle and out-physical opposing corners and win the ball. You’ll also see Dez outright stealing poorly thrown balls that he had no business catching. You’ll also see Dez taking short passes and turning them into long touchdowns. Watch the video and enjoy the virtually unstoppable redzone threat the two represented. Gasp at the breathtaking catches Dez made routine. Marvel at Dez turning a simple wider-receiver screen into a 50-yard touchdown where he ran around, past and over helpless defenders.

The reality is the Romo to Dez combination was a prime component of whatever success the Cowboys enjoyed from 2012 to 2014. The team has missed that contribution since and here we find ourselves.

I’m going to miss Dez. CowboysNation seems split regarding him; there are many who are more than happy to ride him out of town while an equally vocal contingent vociferously defends him against all. I personally don’t understand how the team is better without him than with him.

Allan Hurns is a nice receiver. As is Terrance Williams. Neither is remotely close to a legitimate #1 NFL receiver. History will show whether the decision was a wise one or another instance of the Cowboys’ front office botching the departure of a Cowboys’ legend in his twilight years.

What is the legacy of Dez Bryant? That will depend on who you ask. Some will rank him among the team’s greatest receivers ever (raising my hand). They’ll note he caught more touchdown passes than Bob Hayes, Drew Pearson, Tony Hill or Michael Irvin. Some will consider him an enormous talent that never quite accomplished the possible, saying he earned “only” three Pro Bowl nods. Others still will consider him an underachiever who failed to meet the lofty standards of the #88.

Time will yield the ultimate judgement.