By Jason Keidel
For the first few years of his career, Dez Bryant was an NFL cliche. Equal parts productive and impetuous, the wildly gifted wideout was the latest in a growing line of pass-catchers who couldn’t see past his stats, whose numbers had to be weighed against his impact. Bryant was so unpredictable off the field that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones used to have a security detail keeping tabs on him.
Yet unlike Chad Johnson or Terrell Owens or any number of high-flying wide receivers over the last 20 years who never seemed to break that membrane into maturity, Dez finally seemed to get it.
But the Cowboys just cut Bryant, saying goodbye after eight years, 531 receptions, 7,459 yards, and 73 touchdowns. Jerry Jones, or his son Stephen, may say this is about the something else, invoking the ever-opaque Distraction clause. But the real distraction was the $16 million cap hit the Cowboys would absorb this coming season.
It’s hard to recall the last time Bryant’s name appeared anywhere but the box score. So when you weigh the perks and quirks, it always comes down to same thing every player of Bryant’s caliber has faced over time — production. There’s been nothing lately to suggest Dez Bryant is a headache anymore, that he grumbles when he doesn’t get a dozen catches, or that he wants anything but to win. At 29, Bryant is hardly washed up, and played all 16 gams in 2017, catching 69 passes, averaging 12.1 yards per catch. Surely someone else will scoop him up. It just won’t be the same.
Maybe we should have seen this coming. The NFL, like life is all about connections. And Bryant was Tony Romo’s guy, his primary target and, along with Jason Witten, his safety blanket. Once Dallas went to Dak over Tony, life in Dallas changed forever for Dez, his role devolving into that of a possession receiver, if not a secondary or tertiary target.
Pro football doesn’t leave much room for romance or nostalgia. No one suffers from short-term memory more than an NFL GM. You are only as good as your last game. Dez Bryant’s last game with the Cowboys yielded three catches for 24 yards. That’s in no way symbolic of is talent, or temerity, both of which warranted a better end than the one he just got — a boot to the back. Bryant didn’t ask to leave. He was told to leave.
If you know anything about Bryant before he entered the NFL his life was hardly that of a Hallmark card, or a Rockwell canvas that every kid covets. He’s suffered more than a few indignities, even being asked by pre-draft personnel men if his mother was a prostitute. The odds against him going from where he started to where he is now borders on miraculous. Forgive him if he didn’t have a doctorate in Dale Carnegie, or some other flawless blueprint for handling success.
Say what you want about Dez Bryant — and much has been, for sure — you can’t say he doesn’t care, his hoarse, high-pitched voice always in the game, exhorting a teammate to do better, for himself to do better, to bemoan a ball he didn’t snag. He wasn’t a saint. He wasn’t always right. But unlike many of his loquacious predecessors, he did get the difference between me and we in plenty of time for us to root for him. Even those of us who loathe the Cowboys can find love for No. 88.
Makes you wonder what would have happened had he caught that ball in Green Bay three years ago. The pass he caught by the goal line at Lambeau, which was a catch, ruled a catch, until it wasn’t. It could have been a perfect punctuation on Dez’s best season in Dallas — 88 catches, 1,320 yards, and a league-leading 16 touchdowns. That 13-3 Cowboys club could have beaten the Seahawks — they already had manhandled them in Seattle — and maybe they beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl.
How different is Dez Bryant’s legacy then? Maybe Dallas doesn’t find Dez to be such a distraction, after all.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.