The Curious Case of Dez Bryant
Dez Bryant has been on the receiving end of spectacular plays and unfortunate rulings throughout his career. From monstrous performances that have included ridiculous catches such as his one-handed-secured-by-his-helmet catch against the Detroit Lions in 2013. To his near miracle catch against the New York Giants that was overturned because his left hand touched out of bounds in 2012. And yes, even the notorious non-catch against the Green Bay Packers in the Divisional Round during the 2015 NFL Playoffs. Dez Bryant has been on both sides of the spectrum that have involved the extraordinary, whether incredible or unfavorable. Despite his illustrious career (so far), we have yet to see consistent performances in comparison to his 2013 and 2014 NFL seasons. This, of course, can be reasoned due to injuries that he sustained from a fractured foot and hamstring issues last year in 2015. While Bryant did suffer from a hairline fracture in his knee earlier this season and was essentially inactive the entire month of October, it has not prevented him from significant playing time upon his return.
To say the least, the 2016 campaign has been a roller coaster for Dez Bryant. Bryant has had dominant performances this season that include the contests at Washington and Pittsburgh with over 100 yards receiving and a touchdown in each game, and respectable performances against Minnesota and Baltimore. While on the other hand, Bryant has been practically non-existent. In both the Cowboys’ games against the Giants and their road trip to Cleveland against the Browns, Bryant was only able to record 1 catch in each game. One of the factors concerning Bryant’s stats stems from the current Romo-over-Prescott debate given the rookie quarterback’s recent struggles. It is hard to ignore the fact that Dak Prescott has skill sets that need more time to develop to match veteran Tony Romo such as pocket presence, awareness, reading defenses, and the deep ball. During the Cowboys’ Thanksgiving match-up against the Washington Redskins, Bryant was able to discombobulate Josh Norman on a post-route that would have pushed him well over 100 receiving yards and given the Cowboys an easy touchdown if Prescott had the awareness to locate him.
While it can be argued that Bryant needs to be more incorporated into the Cowboys’ offense, Prescott and Cowboys’ offensive coordinator Scott Linehan have been gratuitous in feeding Bryant opportunities to record catches and make plays. Accordingly, Bryant has been targeted 81 times thus far this season, but has only been able to complete 38 catches. At times, it has seemed that forcing passes in Bryant’s direction has detracted the Cowboys from advancing the football downfield. In his return from injury against the Philadelphia Eagles at home on October 30th, Bryant was targeted 14 times and was only able to complete 4 catches. Although Bryant was able to amount 113 receiving yards (including a 53 yard haul) and a touchdown, it took away Prescott’s momentum of distributing the ball between Cole Beasley and Jason Witten, which had become the bread and butter of the Cowboys’ passing game.
Would Bryant’s stats increase if Romo was back as the starting quarterback? Most likely, but the question of Romo’s durability and longevity is another debate in itself of whether to place him back in the starting lineup. Until then (if it ever occurs), all eyes will be on Dak Prescott’s passing game, the Cowboys’ improvement on 3rd down conversions, and of course, Dez Bryant’s progression this season. But, how can the Cowboys better utilize Dez in their offense? The Cowboys must return to their bread and butter offense that revolves around Beasley and Witten. This has been able to allow Bryant to open up naturally with Dak Prescott under center, rather than forcing him the ball in tight coverage. The more recent games against the Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants featured consistent blitzing and heavy stacking in the box on the 3rd downs. In most of these scenarios, the Cowboys have used Lance Dunbar, their primary 3rd down back, as a pass catcher rather than a pass blocker to pick up the blitz. With greater physique and better pass blocking skills, having Ezekiel Elliott on 3rd and long will enable Prescott to have more time in the pocket to make checks downfield to Bryant, Terrance Williams, or whomever. It doesn’t also hurt to incorporate screen passes to Bryant on 3rd and short for a conversion. Dez Bryant has the skill set to be a monster on the football field as he has shown throughout his career. But, he also, at times, has failed to come down with a complete catch or immediately yell for pass interference despite clean defensive play given his inability to give 100% effort. In the end, Bryant needs to fight for every pass within his vicinity and come down with the ball. Eyes-to-hand-to-tuck.