Over the course of his eight, jaw-dropping campaigns with the Cowboys, perennial Pro Bowl receiver Dez Bryant hauled in 531 receptions (including a team-record 73 touchdown grabs), tallied 7,459 receiving yards (fifth in franchise history) and wowed fans with his playmaking after-the-catch and on special teams. On April 13, 2018, the wide receiver’s illustrious run with the team came to an end as Dallas released him in a move that sent social media into a frenzy.
The release signals the end of an close-knit relationship between Bryant and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and has opened up debate on “Garrett Guys.” The term refers to head coach Jason Garrett’s preferred players who tend to be more docile vs. vocal players whose passion and intensity tend to be misconstrued by pundits who’ve never spent a second in a NFL locker room.
To understand Bryant’s boisterous personality, you have to look into his upbringing. He comes from humble beginnings in Lufkin, Texas, a small town a couple hours outside of Houston. Bryant clawed his way out of poverty, overcame a childhood rife with struggle (I won’t get into the details Google is free) and carved out a successful career at Oklahoma State. He was suspended due to the NCAA’s ridiculous rules regarding “extra benefits” and eventually landed a job with his dream team, the Dallas Cowboys. He had a few run-ins off the field whilst acclimating to fame and a legion of family members and friends who depended on him financially, but via Jason Garrett, the star pass catcher matured. “We have a tremendous amount of love for Dez Bryant as an organization,” said Garrett during the 2018 offseason. “He’s made so many contributions to our team. I personally have a lot of love for him as a player and more so as a person. The growth and development that he’s made over the course of his career with us has been exponential has made a huge impact on our team.” What strikes me as crazy, thought not surprising in the NFL, is the fact that one can say something of this magnitude about a coworker and then drop them like a hot potato after most of the league’s teams filled their roster holes at the beginning of free agency.
I’m not here to convince you that Bryant was perfect. He was routinely late to meetings, missed treatments while recovering from injury, got into it with coaches over philosophical differences (something every superstar player in the history of football has done) and saw his production dip during a few injury-plagued seasons following the signing of his massive 5-year, $70 million contract. Despite all this, the pass catcher will go down as arguably the greatest receiver to donn a star on his helmet. Throughout his prime, Bryant constantly commanded double teams, minimized and outclassed defenders with his Moss-esque jump-ball skills and served as a role model for the team’s young guns, who vouch for him as a person/teammate on social media following his release.
If you ask me, there are two things behind Bryant’s decline in production. The first is injuries. At the end, Bryant was a few steps slower due to the myriad of lower body issues he had. He’s never been the greatest route-runner but while playing on one leg he lacked his signature explosiveness and ability to separate from defensive backs. This combined with struggling to latch onto footballs during his final two seasons, reduced 88 to nothing more than a lower-end No. 1 receiver who had trouble finding chemistry with Dak Prescott. Not to throw Prescott under the bus, but he’s one of “Garrett’s Guys,” and his lack of arm talent led to plenty of miscommunications with Bryant. Another issue was Bryant’s willingness to question the Cowboys’ coaching staff for their lack of offensive creativity, something that was on display during a tumultuous 2018 season in which the Cowboys’ passing game struggled mightily without Ezekiel Elliott. “I always kept it real,” Bryant told NFL Network. “Everybody know where the real love is at, and I’m not throwing anybody under the bus, but that’s the difference between me and them.”
The notion that ‘The X’ was a distraction to his teammates always rubbed me the wrong way. Yes, there were plenty of times when a passionate Bryant was caught by cameras screaming on the sidelines. One, we don’t know what he was screaming about. Two, at least you can tell he cared. Football is an emotional game, one that takes the utmost passion and a few loose screws to play. We’ve seen Tom Brady get in numerous heated altercations with the Patriots’ coaching staff. What some view as distractions -- usually those who aren’t used to competing -- others see as a pick-me up. Bryant’s fiery personality never intended to demean players, coaches or anybody for that matter. He just wanted to win and win at all costs. His effort in practice and on Sundays could never be questioned and those inside the organization will tell you, few players bring it as consistently as Dez. Football is a cruel business, but when the salary/in-house issues with coaching staff outweigh the production, the player usually winds up on the outside looking in.