It was almost a year ago when the Rico Gathers experiment brought out smiles from ear to ear. In two preseason games last year, he caught seven passes for 106 yards and two touchdowns. The six-foot-six power forward from Baylor showcased a huge target for backup quarterbacks Kellen Moore and Cooper Rush (watch TD catches here and here). After spending his first season stashed on the practice squad, it appeared that the Cowboys risky investment was starting to pay off.
But then, a giant roadblock emerged when he suffered a concussion/head injury and was placed on injured reserve. This caused him to be held out of the first half of the season. Despite being able to return in week 9, the team decided to shut him down for the remainder of the season. Some suspected that his concussion injury might be more serious than led on to believe, however later it was revealed that the coaching staff was content with just putting him in their back pocket and saving him for later. Head coach Jason Garrett explains his decision to sit Rico:
“At the point he was able to come back, we were far along down in our season for him to be able to make a significant contribution. Obviously we want a player to continue to develop. We tried to do that with him last year. That’s really the reason we made the decision. Because of where he was and where we were.”
Hearing that news was a bit of a head-scratcher. Rico looked so good in preseason. And the Cowboys passing game struggled in the second half of the season. It seemed odd that they didn’t feel like a big target like Gathers could help Dak Prescott and this offense.
But hey, they know what they’re doing, right? So, here we sit with Rico approaching year three without him yet stepping on the field for an NFL game that counts. It would seem like the table is now set for 2018 to be his breakout season. Or is it?
Not only has there been a dark cloud placed on his could-be breakout season, but some are wondering if Rico even makes the team. Part of this notion comes from his struggles in the blocking department. Okay, so he’s not a good blocker, but does that mean the coaches cannot find a spot for him to where he can be a value to this offense? BTB alum, K.D. Drummond, said it best when he poured a nice cold glass of reality for everyone:
Here’s the biggest question I have, however: If the Cowboys sport the best offensive line in football, then why do the Cowboys need two tight ends who are great blockers on the field at once?
The Cowboys have the best left tackle in football. The Cowboys have the best center in football. The Cowboys have the best right guard in football. The Cowboys have players at left guard and right tackle who nobody would’ve blinked an eye if they were selected in the first round of their respective drafts. The Cowboys have arguably the best running back in football.
But every tight end on the roster has to be a great run blocker?
When the Cowboys drafted Rico, I’m sure they weren’t thinking, “he’s going to be one hell of a blocker in this league.” That’s not his forte, his niche, if you will. He’s a pass catcher. He’s a big, athletic pass catcher and needs to be used at such.
Trying to figure out why it appears the team is so down on Rico is puzzling. Maybe he doesn’t take his job serious enough. Maybe he doesn't’ demonstrate any enthusiasm or come to meetings/practice prepared. Maybe he mopes around the facility showing how unhappy he is with his limited opportunities. Or maybe he misses a blitz pickup assignment, gets frustrated, and throws his helmet on the ground in disgusts. Okay, so that last one was legit, but we don’t know about that other stuff. However, it does sound awfully familiar. The Cowboys once had another tight end who was an athletic freak, but just couldn’t do enough to keep the coaching staff happy. Coincidentally, he also wore #80.
Cowboys should have never let Martellus Bennett go. Sometimes I think the Cowboys don't let any new TE's develop because of Jason Witten— America’s Team (@RoadToSix) October 24, 2016
There were high hopes for Martellus Bennett when the Cowboys took him in the second-round of the 2008 NFL Draft. But he got stuck behind Jason Witten and was never able to spread his wings. While he hadn’t developed as much as they had hoped, his blocking did improve and the Cowboys wanted to retain him after his rookie contract expired. Dallas would match the offer he received in free agency by the New York Giants, but Bennett declined. He wanted out of Dallas and out of the shadows of Witten so he could play on a team that would get him the ball.
And that is what he got in New York as the Giants more than tripled the targets he received in his last year in Dallas. He started out of the gate red-hot, becoming the first player in the Giants organization to score a touchdown in his first three games with the team. He would have a Pro Bowl year in 2014 with the Chicago Bears when he caught 90 passes for 916 yards. And he would win a Super Bowl with the New England Patriots. His five catches for 52 yards helped the Patriots complete a 28-3 comeback against the Atlanta Falcons. It was his pass interference play that set up New England’s game-winning touchdown in overtime.
Every season he played on a team not named Dallas, he would have more receiving yards than his best season with the Cowboys.
Final three seasons with Dallas = 0 touchdowns
Next five seasons with other teams = 26 touchdowns
Everywhere Bennett went, he would put up good numbers, but the odd thing is - he kept having trouble finding a long-term suitor. The Giants put him on a one-year rental deal, but didn’t retain him. It looked like Chicago would be his home when he signed a four-year deal, but clubhouse drama caused him to be traded away. He held out during a contract dispute, openly criticized quarterback Jay Cutler, and even called his Bears teammates “a bunch of b...es” which not surprisingly didn’t go over well. New England got a good season out of him, but also didn’t keep him after the season ended. The Green Bay Packers signed him to a three-year deal last year, but he was released before the season was over. This offseason, Bennett finally called it quits and retired.
When you look at Bennett’s career as a whole, there are definitely two sides to the coin. The athleticism is there and he made plays, but he was a giant headache.
If there’s anything we’ve learned this offseason, it’s that the Cowboys are trying to alleviate these headaches. They want a clubhouse filled with players who are driven and focused on doing whatever is needed to help the team win. What does that mean for Rico Gathers? Is it possible he gets the boot in Dallas and then gets a chance to light it up somewhere else? During a mailbag question over at the Mothership, the subject came up about releasing Rico.
We cannot keep everyone, and good players get cut every year because of numbers at a certain position, scheme or coaches’ biases. Who do you think is most likely to miss the team that we will come to regret later on?
David Helman: Questions like this are what make me wonder about Rico Gathers. Clearly, from watching spring practices, he’s last on the depth chart. It’s not a stretch to think he might get cut. At the same time, we know how athletic he is – and we’ve seen what he can do in the preseason. As raw as Rico might be, I bet the Cowboys are terrified of what he might do with another team if they release him.
How frustrating would it be to hold on to this guy for a couple years while he develops only to watch him catch touchdowns for another team?
The comparisons to Bennett are there, but unlike the situation back in 2012, Witten is no longer on the team impeding his progress. Rico’s situation is purely about Rico. Does he got it or not? And if he doesn’t, do they believe he can get there soon enough? The Cowboys will have some tough roster decisions to make this year. Every project guy they stash is another possible contributor that doesn’t get a spot. They have to be smart about which guys they keep and which guys they cut loose. And parting ways with Rico could end up being a decision that comes back to bite them.