He went over, through and by defensive backs to make catches. He even pinned a touchdown catch against his helmet against the Detroit Lions while keeping his feet in bounds.
Bryant was somehow able to make the competition — great in its own rite — look average and the impossible almost look easy. But in the end, his falling production and “fiery” personality doomed Bryant, whose career with Cowboys came to an end Friday. Dallas cut Bryant and will move on from one of the most dynamic offensive players in team history.
“The other thing that we all see and it is certainly visible to anyone who watches our games, watches our sideline, is Dez is certainly a fiery guy who plays with a lot of emotion both on and off the field,” Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said on the team’s podcast. “Sometimes that can be a distraction. It can be a distraction for Dez, it can be a distraction for other teammates. And we just have to really get our hands around when you put all the full body of work together where that’s headed.”
Since the start of free agency, the Cowboys have been active in the wide receiver market. They offered big money to Sammy Watkins, who instead signed a three-year, $48 million contract with the Kansas City Chiefs. The Cowboys were able to add Allen Hurns and Deonte Thompson. They have also had workouts and visits with almost all of the top receivers available in the upcoming draft, including Alabama’s Calvin Ridley, Maryland’s D.J. Moore and Oklahoma State’s James Washington.
Bryant was the Cowboys’ first-round pick in 2010. He amassed more then 1,000 yards receiving, with double-digit touchdowns, for three straight seasons from 2012-14. He finishes his time with the Cowboys with a team-record 73 touchdown receptions to go with 531 catches for 7,459 yards in 113 games.
It rarely ends the way a player wants. Just last month on 105.3 FM The Fan in Dallas, Bryant said he could not envision himself playing for another team. Now he must. He isn’t the first big-name Cowboy to be cut in recent years. DeMarcus Ware, who finished his career with the Denver Broncos, was supposed to be a Cowboy for life. Tony Romo was cut last year. Jason Witten might be able to write his exit with the Cowboys; Bryant wasn’t as lucky.
Since signing a five-year, $70 million deal in 2015, Bryant has not recorded a 1,000-yard season or reached double digits in touchdown catches. He didn’t have a 100-yard game last season, just the second time in his career.
The cracks in the relationship started to show earlier this offseason when Jones said the sideline outbursts were a distraction. In the past, it had been written off as a measure of Bryant’s passion or the television cameras catching the receiver at an inopportune times, his actions taken out of context.
When the production drops, teams have a difficult time looking the other way.
From the time Bryant arrived to his final game last December, his growth off the field has been impressive. Still, he missed the conditioning test at the start of training camp last summer. In 2016, Bryant went AWOL after he hurt his knee and thought he might be done for the season. Late last season, he said he was bothered by tendinitis but did not get treatment.
The Cowboys offense began to shift to a reliance on the running game in 2014. DeMarco Murray led the NFL in rushing with 1,845 yards that season. But they still had Romo at quarterback, and Bryant led the NFL in touchdown catches that season with 16.
After the 2014 season, the Cowboys signed Bryant to the contract extension, in part, because of the connection he had with Romo. In 2015, Romo started and finished just two games because of a twice-broken left collarbone. Bryant played nine games that season with 401 yards receiving and three touchdowns.
In 2016, Romo suffered a compression fracture in his back in the preseason and the Cowboys became Dak Prescott‘s team. The offense again shifted to the running game, with rookie Ezekiel Elliott, and away from a straight, drop-back passing scheme.
Prescott and Bryant worked at trying to find ways to connect over the last two seasons and at times were good, but too often they missed the mark. It’s neither players’ fault the Cowboys got to this point. Sometimes, quarterback-receiver pairings can only go so far.
Add in the economic realities and the Cowboys decided it was time to walk away. Bryant was slated to make $12.5 million and count $16.5 million against the cap in 2018. Had he still produced at a top level, they would have likely restructured his contract to gain cap space.
Bryant turns 30 in November. He still believes he can be an elite receiver and could be again if he chooses his next team wisely.
If Bryant returns to the form he had from 2012-14 when he averaged 91 catches for 1,312 yards and 14 touchdowns, then the Cowboys will just have to live with it.
They can watch the highlights with the belief it was never going to happen in Dallas again.