Speaking at the NFL owners’ meetings in Orlando, Garrett gushed about what a great player Bryant had been for the franchise. He waxed about Bryant’s competitive nature and desire, and insisted that the Dallas brain trust couldn’t wait to get the wideout “back in the fold” and working again.
“We love Dez,” Garrett said.
Be wary of optimistic lip-service in the NFL. Hopeful, half-committed words are often used as momentary odor eliminators, masking the fragrance of an inevitable reality. In the NFL it’s always better to draw conclusions from money and hardened actions. Signing Allen Hurns was a tangible action. The overweight salary cap commitment to the wide receiver position in Dallas was real. But the love professed for Bryant in March was a half-truth screaming for the pink-slipped qualifier that finally arrived Friday.
“We love Dez… when we look at his film from 2014.”
“We love Dez…but don’t think he’s worth $12.5 million.”
“We love Dez…but not as much as we love Dak Prescott.”
If Cowboys fans take anything away from Bryant’s release, those three truths are ironclad. Dallas looks at film and doesn’t see the same player who was an All Pro in 2014. It can’t reconcile his salary with the player it sees on the field. And above all else, it values Prescott, the quarterback, far more – and doesn’t believe the current skills of the two players suit one another. Wash off the cheap, lying perfume Dallas is spraying all over this situation and you’ll come to that trio of conclusions.
The Cowboys might be right, too. This move is going to be viewed through one prism next season: whether Prescott rebounds with a set of wideouts who apparently fit his growth curve better than Bryant. If Prescott succeeds, the sting of this week’s move will look justified. If Prescott fails, then the pain and frustration of this week will get worse. Why? The Cowboys’ brain trust will have to answer for sacrificing two beloved team icons – Tony Romo and Bryant – on a franchise quarterback gamble that fell flat.
For that reason alone, this move puts more pressure on Prescott. The fan base was already seemingly divided over his up-and-down performance last season, causing the euphoria of 2016 to fade and be replaced by justifiable questions. The second-guessing wondered if Romo was pushed aside too early. Or if running back Ezekiel Elliott’s availability ultimately determines how good Prescott is as an NFL quarterback.
Add Bryant into the mix, as he was sacrificed in part because of his fit with Prescott. The reasons have been leaking out of the Cowboys consistently since the start of last season.
Bryant wasn’t getting the separation that made him great. His routes weren’t precise enough. He wasn’t catching balls that weren’t perfectly placed. His effort wasn’t always where it needed to be. His game still contained an emotional component that wasn’t ideal for Prescott’s development. And then finally, he was making too much money to have three straight seasons of subpar production, regardless of the reasons for those performances.
For a guy Cowboys brass loves, it’s safe to say it didn’t always like everything about Bryant. And if Dallas denies that now, then it’s going to have to explain why it released him in a move that puts Prescott’s development in the hands of a wide receiving corps that appears to lack a dominant No. 1. Drafting a talent like Maryland’s D.J. Moore or Alabama’s Calvin Ridley could help in that respect, but it’s a stretch to guarantee either of those players can come in and be a dominant factor out of the gate.
Barring a trade or one of the current veteran wideouts suddenly becoming a Pro Bowl player, Dallas is signing up for nothing less than a transition year in the passing offense. One in which Prescott must take a huge stride forward and do most of his damage through an aggregation of solid-but-not-stellar options. It’s indeed possible if Elliott can keep himself on the field for a full season and the offensive line stays healthy and solidifies along the right side.
None of this is going to make sense without Prescott getting appreciably better. Only that will soothe the pain of this move and make the front office and coaching staff look like it knows what it’s doing. The Cowboys better hope they’re right about Prescott making the strides necessary to cover this moment because he didn’t exactly put the Romo “what-ifs” to bed last season. And another year of uneven performances will only accentuate how much Dallas has gambled on Prescott without the breakthrough it expects.
This latest development could be the right move. Or it could be a regrettable mistake. Regardless, Tony Romo and Dez Bryant are gone, while Dak Prescott remains. If you need to know who the Cowboys love right now, start with that reality first.
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