Why? That is the burning question for Dez Bryant fans. Why did the team see fit to part with their all time career touchdown leader going into a season when the offense has a big task in returning to potency?
This is a separate question from the way the whole situation was handled. It seems inarguable that the team did Bryant no favors by waiting until almost the last moment to make official a decision that had probably been made (at least for a majority of the staff) a couple of months before. But that is not the focus of this article.
No, the question is why the team no longer saw value in Bryant. And as information begins to come out, there seem to be two answers. First, key members of the staff (particularly Stephen Jones and probably Scott Linehan, at a minimum) were for various reasons just fed up with Bryant. Problems that had been reported about him from the very beginning of his career in Dallas were no longer tolerable with his declining production and what is generally described as his lack of chemistry with Dak Prescott. And second, he may play a position that is just not valued as highly anymore.
That second one probably caused a few eyebrows to raise, but we’ll deal with that after we go into the first one.
Bob Sturm had a couple of very informative pieces up at the Athletic that really dissected what has gone wrong with Dez. They are unfortunately behind the paywall, but in the first, he went over the various performance issues Bryant had last year. This passage touched on the issue of drops, and how it appeared to be an indication of more than just declining skills.
The disconcerting issue with Dez and his drops would be that it appeared he also checked out around Thanksgiving last year. His concentration dipped badly and you could certainly accuse him of a few “business decisions” late where on 3rd down in Oakland and against Seattle, he had a chance to make a play but it was going to hurt. He decided to avoid the collision and preserve the well-being. It is not a great look, but it is also not the first time a player opted out of pain late in a season that had died on the vine. Again, if you are Stephen Jones, you might not want your team leader to set the pace like that for the paycheck you write him, but, I would argue that Bryant has significant warrior credit in the bank.
That “warrior credit” turned out to be a case of insufficient funds. The second Sturm piece was written the morning after the Friday the 13th dismissal, and it focuses on the off-field problems that come with having Bryant on your team. Here is a trenchant excerpt that also takes into account some of the things that Bryant has said since his release that certainly includes some finger-pointing.
Or, do the coaches and players on this team that have dealt with him for years feel like he is a pain to deal with when things aren’t to his liking? Dez has singled out the “captains” as those who either helped write his ticket out of town or at least didn’t pound the table to defend him. That would support the theory that the leadership group in this organization had real questions about his understanding of what is asked and demanded of the biggest earners and most influential role models on the squad. If a coaching staff and leadership group believe that they must set the tone, you can understand the frustration from their end that Dez still does many of the things that were annoying but worth it when Tony could keep him in line in the huddle. Now a young QB is trying to figure out the NFL and some members of the offensive brain trust think that the Dez Bryant experience can be counterproductive?
Again, we are trying to gain clarity and we will never fully get it, but if I am reading things correctly, it sounds – partially because Stephen Jones has said it publicly – that Dez and his hair-trigger temper is just causing one more obstacle for an offense that does not need more obstacles.
Dez certainly has a different approach to things than some of the other guys that run the Cowboys. But the comments Bryant made about the team captains being part of the movement to get him out of Dallas also are evidence of a problem with how he fit in the culture those leaders were trying to foster in the locker room. (Take the comments on social media about the influence those captains, especially Dak Prescott, had in the decision with a largish grain of salt. They were probably included in some discussions, but to think they really drove the decision seems a bit irrational. That seems not at all how a professional football team works, especially with a young and still developing quarterback.)
There is a lot of controversy about how things did actually happen, but what may be even more controversial is that the pro game may be evolving away from really needing a franchise wide receiver to find success in the NFL.
This quote from Kyle Shanahan on No. 1 WRs is so perfect. It encapsulates where the league is headed at the position and is instructive for this draft. https://t.co/4EdAc3HcOd pic.twitter.com/9VCYGzjBiT— Matt Harmon (@MattHarmon_BYB) April 14, 2018
Shanahan, now the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, was referring in general to the team’s lack of interest in seeking WR help in free agency, and specifically to Julio Jones, who he dealt with as offensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons. But the logic could also be applied to Bryant and how his value to the Cowboys no longer could justify his cost, even if he did have a rebound season possibly coming this year. As Shanahan says, that franchise WR may now be more a luxury item for rosters rather than a necessity.
The Cowboys are, according to their own statements, seeking to revamp the offense to better suit Prescott’s game. And that could well mean they don’t see the need for that one big weapon at receiver, instead wanting to focus on a group of pass catchers who can run precision routes in the short to mid-range and then get substantial yards after the catch.
There is another indication that, for both reasons cited above, Dez is not seen as the star player he once was. Many predicted before the fact that Bryant’s release would lead to a line of teams bidding for his services. But so far, that has not been the case. Dallas’ NFC East rivals, who are most familiar with Bryant, have shown no interest so far. And they are not the only ones.
Have spoken to 4 decision makers from 4 different NFL teams. Will talk to more. None have an interest in Dez. Only takes one team, but each time Dez points the finger and does not pull the thumb, teams take notice of that. They want to see accountability.— Babe Laufenberg (@BabeLaufenberg) April 14, 2018
So far, 0-10 for the teams I’ve spoken with in terms of wanting to pursue Dez Bryant as UFA.— Jordan Schultz (@Schultz_Report) April 14, 2018
While, as Laufenberg says, it only takes one, that one has not surfaced so far.
Does that mean the Cowboys made the right decision, no matter how clumsily they executed things? It is too early to tell. Bryant could still find a new landing spot where he returns to being the fearsome weapon he was early in his career. But there is a growing sense that he would have to have someone of Tony Romo levels of proficiency as a passer. And those are rare birds indeed. It may be that most, perhaps even all, NFL teams will see him as not having the remaining skills to offset his much-publicized emotional demonstrations and frequent outspokenness. That doesn’t mean he won’t eventually catch on somewhere. At some point, some team will almost certainly find itself in need of another wide receiver and offer him a deal both sides will find acceptable. It may be this week, or it may be after preseason gets underway and the inevitable injuries start piling up.
Most fans wish Dez well, and hope he has a strong finish to his career. But as we have seen with players like Emmitt Smith and so many others throughout the league, even superstars always find defeat at the hands of Father Time and the rigors of the NFL. It will likely be at least a couple of years before we find out if the Cowboys were a bit hasty in parting ways with him.
So far, though, there is some real evidence that it was simply time for it to happen. It is just a shame it went down so awkwardly.