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This one stat proves it was a good move to cut Dez Bryant

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Simply put, Dez Bryant cannot exist in a Dak-friendly offense.

Dallas Cowboys v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

There were definitely mixed feelings when the Cowboys officially cut Dez Bryant. Many of us enjoyed watching him play, and emphatically threw up the X every time he scored, but for many there was an understanding as to why the decision was made.

As time has gone on, though, a lot has been revealed to reinforce the team’s decision. Clips of Bryant arguing with players and coaches on Amazon’s All or Nothing series and the fact that Bryant still remains unsigned are just two things that should ease any concerns the fans may have.

On Monday, Pro Football Focus delivered their latest nugget of in-depth statistics, with a list of the most endzone targets in 2017. Not surprisingly, Bryant was fourth in the NFL with 17 targets.

It makes sense that Bryant would get a lot of targets in the endzone, as his size and strength at wrestling the ball away from defenders is what helped him break the franchise record for career touchdown receptions. However, Bryant’s decline started in 2015, which makes sense given that this was when Tony Romo effectively stopped being the quarterback. Obviously, catching passes from Matt Cassel and Brandon Weeden will tank most receivers’ numbers, but the last two years with Dak Prescott saw those numbers remain uncharacteristically low.

This is because, as has been well-documented by now, Prescott is a quarterback whose best skill is reading progressions quickly and throwing to whoever is open first. Whereas Romo was incredibly accurate and could fit the ball in almost anywhere, including to Bryant in double coverage, Prescott is more of a ball protector who makes the best throw rather than throwing to the best receiver. This is evident in how few turnovers Prescott has recorded in his career; forcing it to a certain receiver is against his nature.

It’s why this stat below is a thing that exists:

When Romo was the quarterback, Bryant received a lot of passes thrown his way and it worked because of the chemistry between Romo and number 88. From 2011 to 2014, Bryant averaged a gaudy 134 targets per season and capitalized on it with 50 touchdown receptions and 4,863 yards. In Prescott’s first season, Bryant’s targets dropped to 96. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan apparently tried to remedy that in 2017, with 132 targets to the receiver. Coincidentally, Prescott’s numbers were markedly worse than his rookie year.

All of this brings me to examine red zone statistics between Prescott and Bryant. While red zone targets and catches aren’t the same as the endzone targets PFF was talking about above, it’s a good way to measure the effectiveness of the Dak-to-Dez connection. Bryant was always most dangerous in the endzone, either in his ability to bring down contested catches in the endzone or catch it short and bowl his way across the plane.

Therefore, when Dallas would get into the red zone on offense, Linehan would typically draw up a play to get the ball to Bryant and score. In fact, in 2017 the Cowboys threw almost 32% of all red zone passes to Bryant. That made for 20 red zone targets, which tied Bryant with Antonio Brown for ninth most red zone targets in the NFL last year. However, Bryant only pulled down five of these passes for touchdowns. What about the 15 targets that weren’t scores? Six of them were short completions of under 10 yards, and nine were incomplete passes that were either batted down by the cornerbacks or dropped by Bryant. Of course, one of those incompletions was this back-breaker by Broncos corner Aqib Talib:

While the game was very much over at this point, the play demonstrates the dangers of forcing the ball to Bryant with a quarterback who isn’t good at forcing the ball to a specific player. In the past, this is a play where Romo either places the ball right over Talib’s head and Bryant goes up and gets it or the ball thrown to Bryant’s back shoulder and he gets enough physical separation to reach out and snatch it. Prescott isn’t that accurate (not a knock on Prescott, just pointing out how great Romo was) and this kind of play doesn’t work. It’s high-risk, high-reward, and the downside is a turnover.

Let’s look at 2016, where Prescott and the Cowboys were much better. Bryant’s red zone targets were lower at just 13 - Jason Witten had more targets with 18. Bryant converted five of those 13 targets into touchdown catches, with seven of them being incomplete and only one completion not going to the house. Prescott’s 11 other red zone touchdown passes were thrown to five different receivers, and his only red zone interception was what could simply be described as a rookie mistake, and it wasn’t to Bryant.

All of this goes to show that designed plays to feed Bryant in the red zone were not Prescott’s style. It worked well for Romo because of how accurate of a passer he was, and how well he understood his receiver. While there are questions of how well Prescott got along with Bryant, it is also undeniable that their skill-sets never matched up. In switching to a Dak-friendly offense where Prescott can spread the ball around more often, Bryant would not see as many targets as he wanted; it would be more like 2016 for him. With Bryant’s price tag and his understandable desire to be thrown the ball a lot, that simply didn’t match with what the Cowboys were trying to do.

The numbers say that cutting Bryant, although hard to do, was the right move. What do you think?


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