Plenty has gone wrong for the 7-1 Dallas Cowboys this season. Since August, they’ve lost their starting quarterback, left tackle, wide receiver, two cornerbacks and strong safety for multiple games. Tony Romo has been out all year, Tyron Smith missed two games, Dez Bryant has played just five games, Orlando Scandrick had a bad hamstring, and now Morris Claiborne and Barry Church are out for about the next month.
Again, they’re 7-1.
Quarterback Dak Prescott has played admirably, as have running back Ezekiel Elliott, the offensive line and the defense for the most part. As a team, the Cowboys have been dominant, which is why they’re two games up in the NFC East. But for as great as they’ve been, Bryant has put up lackluster numbers.
In five games, he has just 16 catches for 282 yards and two touchdowns. He’s struggled to get on the same page as Prescott for most of the season – partly due to his knee injury – but it’s hard to expect a star receiver to mesh perfectly with a rookie quarterback halfway through the season.
His numbers obviously aren’t where he’d like them to be after catching at least 88 passes for 1,200-plus yards and 12 touchdowns from 2012-14, but his impact has been far more prominent than he gets credit for. And for as bad as he’s been statistically this season, Bryant is far from a problem for the Cowboys despite some believing that to be the case.
Sunday’s game against the Browns was a perfect example of why.
Bryant has taken a lot of heat for his one-catch, 19-yard outing against a lowly Cleveland team. He wasn’t involved much on offense despite the fact that the Cowboys obliterated the Browns. Prescott targeted him a season-low four times, and it was the second time he had just one catch in a game this season. He had six such games entering 2016.
Browns cornerback Joe Haden was stuck on Bryant for just about the entire game. He did a decent job taking Bryant out of the game plan, but he wasn’t alone in doing so. Bryant was constantly double covered by the Browns, facing Haden with a safety over the top more often than not. The result? Wide-open throws to tight end Jason Witten. One safety helped cover Bryant while the other came down into the box to stop the run. Essentially, the Browns sold out to stop both Bryant and Elliott, the team’s two best playmakers.
Without Bryant on the field, the Browns would have been able to stick a safety on Witten and keep one in the box, not needing help against a guy like Terrance Williams or Cole Beasley. Bryant’s defensive pull and required attention helped Witten catch eight passes for 134 yards and a touchdown.
But what about his “drops,” you say? Newsflash: Bryant doesn’t have a drop issue, nor did he have one on Sunday.
This play has stirred up plenty of debate with many saying Bryant should have caught the ball for a touchdown.
As you can see, Haden is clearly holding Bryant’s left arm down, preventing him from bringing it in with two hands. No call for pass interference. Yes, he got one hand on it, and given his talent he could have made a spectacular play in the end zone, but it’s foolish to say that was a pass he should have caught.
On a separate occasion, Tramon Williams got away with a similar play. Again, no call for pass interference.
On the sideline, Bryant was understandably frustrated – not because Prescott wasn’t looking his way and throwing him passes but because the officials missed two pass interference calls that cost him touchdowns. He clarified that after the game, saying this:
“I wanted to say some things about the holding penalty. Dak was like, ‘Let’s just get it right. We’re good.’ You need people like that. I was like, ‘Alright, boom. It’s erased. Let’s go. Let’s move on to the next play.’ I just think that’s cool. That’s just real true leadership that game.”
The narrative that Bryant is angry about Prescott not throwing his way couldn’t be more untrue. Bryant has never been a selfish player despite being perceived that way throughout his career.
Just take a look at this postgame interview with 105.3 The Fan’s Mike Fisher, where Bryant talks about how great Dallas’ chemistry is, and how happy he is to be 7-1. Does this look like a player who’s mad about not putting up astronomical numbers? You be the judge. (Warning: Video contains explicit language).
“As long as we’re winning, I don’t care [about stats],” Bryant said. “Just because we’re winning. The chemistry is extremely crazy. You just gotta love it. Today was [Jason Witten’s] day and he did an outstanding job. We got the win and it was amazing.
“When everyone’s doing their job, it makes everyone else’s jobs easier. The chemistry we’ve built around the locker room and around the star is crazy. Everybody just wants to see everybody succeed. When you have a team like that that cares for one another, it’s just hard to beat. We’re not talking about talent, we’re talking about guys giving a [expletive] about one another, and I think it’s unbelievable how far we came.”
There is no chemistry issue between Prescott and Dez. Sure, they’d like to connect more often and hook up the way Romo and Bryant have in the past, but that will come. They haven’t had a great deal of time together due to injuries and Romo’s presence before the season began, but there’s plenty of time to build that rapport in the coming weeks.
That’s not to say Bryant wouldn’t welcome Romo back with open arms, reconnecting with his longtime starting quarterback, but that’s a given. Romo and Bryant had a connection that was rivaled by few QB-WR duos in the NFL. Their back-shoulder throws and end zone fades were on a different level, and it’s something Prescott will develop over time.
The idea that Bryant is a cancer in the Cowboys’ locker room, or a selfish diva simply isn’t true. He makes his teammates better by drawing constant double-teams, allowing other receivers to break open. Most of the throws Prescott made on Sunday were to receivers with no defender within 5 yards of them. Part of that is because Cleveland’s defense is terrible, but it’s also because Bryant requires a great deal of attention.
And even when he does draw double coverage, he makes catches like this one. How many receivers in the NFL come down with this pass? Not many.
When Bryant was out from Week 4 to Week 6, Witten saw much tighter coverage from defenses. He caught 14 of his 22 targets for 132 yards. In games that Bryant has played, Witten has caught 22 of 33 targets for 292 yards and two touchdowns. It’s not a huge discrepancy, but it shows how often Prescott is able to look Witten’s way with Bryant drawing safety help over the top.
So, no, the Cowboys shouldn’t trade Dez Bryant. No, he’s not a selfish diva who wants the ball on every play. And no, he’s not a problem for the Cowboys on the field nor off it. He’s the most passionate player in the locker room and his intensity rubs off on every teammate around him.