Coming off a very disappointing 2011 season where the Cowboys finished 8-8, lost 4 of their last 5 games, and missed the playoffs, it was very encouraging to see them make some dramatic moves to get better. I won’t rehash all those details again, but suffice it to say that it had been a very quiet, very productive off season for the Cowboys. For good reason excitement was at an all time high among their fans. Noticeably missing were any of the off field problems and distractions that other teams have experienced and the Cowboys have had in the past. That all changed this weekend.
As everyone in the sports universe now knows, Dez Bryant, poised to become the Cowboys leading receiver in 2012 was involved in an altercation on Saturday with “a family member”. That turned out to be his own mother who called 911 after she says he slapped her, pulled her hair, and left her with bruised and swollen hands and wrists. Police investigated the matter and ultimately issued a warrant for Bryant’s arrest. Dez turned himself in on Monday and was arrested and released on bond. He was charged with a class A misdemeanor for which the maximum penalty would be a year in jail and a fine of up to $4,000.
Before we consider the potential impact to the Cowboys, I think it is imperative to first consider the person. Dez is a human being and like any other person deserves to be treated as innocent until he is proven guilty. Clearly, he has some family issues, but every detail about this event is not yet known. Those details will come out over time. Anytime we hear of a man allegedly striking a woman of any kind our first reaction is appropriately negative. I agree that it should NEVER happen no matter the circumstance. But, all of us, including Roger Goodell and the NFL, needs to reserve judgement until such time as Dez has his day in court. If convicted of a crime, then and only then should he pay the full penalty – both criminal and civil (including NFL actions). It’s a little shocking to see how many people were immediately calling for the Cowboys to cut Dez Bryant – seriously?? Let’s get all the facts before we burn him at the stake (along with the Cowboys’ 2012 season).
Having said that, this situation has the potential to undo a lot of the positive work the Cowboys have done this off season. Just last week, Bryant was crowing about his off season and how he had gotten “stronger” and “quicker”. Fans were salivating thinking that this could be the season that Dez Bryant finally takes over the #1 receiver role and dominates opposing defenses like Calvin Johnson or other big time receivers. A healthy Miles Austin and Dez Bryant create significant match up problems for defensive secondaries.
One of the major questions still facing the Cowboys is how they replace the very productive Laurent Robinson, their #3 receiver last season who signed a lucrative contract this off season with Jacksonville. The Cowboys have a herd of young receivers on the current roster with a lot of potential, but one of them will have to step up and win the position and deliver the kind of results Robinson did. With Miles and Dez blanketed, it was often Robinson who found the open spot and Romo came to depend on him. I have been one person that isn’t so convinced that a player of that caliber currently exists on the roster. That story line will still play out in training camp.
However, they may now need to find a #2 and a #3 receiver. That is an exponentially bigger problem. Bryant will likely be in camp, but as the details unfold about this recent incident, there is a very good chance he will not be available to the Cowboys for all 16 games. Goodell and the NFL have come down hard on any infraction involving a violation of the personal conduct policy of the league. Even if Bryant is not ultimately prosecuted, the NFL could send him a very clear message via a suspension. If the details are known prior to the September 5th season opening game against the Giants and it is determined that Dez did what he is accused of doing, I could easily see Goodell suspending him for at least 3-4 games. Dez Bryant could feasibly miss the opener – which has already been called out by multiple people including me as a “must win” start to the season. If he misses that game and the next three games prior to the bye week, that means Dez would not hit the field prior to the October 14th game against the Baltimore Ravens. That also completely changes the dynamic of the offense.
Football is a team game – one player is just a part of the team. Bryant is not a “first ballot HOF player” like Peyton Manning, but ask the Colts how important his absence was last season. What makes the Cowboys so tough offensively is all of the weapons they are able to put on the field at the same time. Dez Bryant is one of those keys. A defense cannot afford to ignore him or get away with consistently defending him with single coverage. They also have to deal with Miles Austin and Jason Witten with Felix Jones and DeMarco Murray coming out of the backfield. Without Bryant, Witten and the others are still powerful weapons but Miles Austin will see consistent double coverage. Defenses will dare the Cowboys to try and throw to their other receivers. Too often in the recent past, we’ve seen just how frustrating that can be for Romo and for Cowboys fans. Romo makes mistakes, but a fair number of his incompletions and interceptions in my opinion over the past several seasons are due to inexperienced receivers not running the right routes or making the correct reads (see Ogletree). Romo typically only has seconds to find a receiver and it is often a matter of timing and throwing to a spot where the receiver is supposed to be. Rarely – especially with our at times patchwork offensive line – does Romo have time to wait for a receiver to break open. The ball has to be out of his hands. That’s why receivers working consistently with a quarterback is so important – so they can develop that timing and confidence in one another. Bryant and Romo are just starting to develop that relationship.
It’s too early to hit the panic button in full, but I would keep it nearby. Without knowing who ultimately wins the battle at receiver, it’s unknown who would be expected to step up and replace Bryant if he is suspended. But, what we do know is that no matter who that unproven talent is, the defensive game plan for the Giants will change. If the Cowboys aren’t able to make the Giants pay for focusing too much on Austin and Witten, they likely lose that opening game. That starts the season on a down note and immediately puts the Cowboys a game behind the Giants (and likely the Eagles who open at Cleveland). The schedule doesn’t get any easier after that with the Cowboys facing Seattle, an improved Tampa Bay, and the Chicago Bears prior to the bye week. If Bryant is suspended for all of those games, it is suddenly feasible that the Cowboys start the season 0-4. (Of course, Seattle has their own issues with the arrest of Marshawn Lynch for a DUI last week – a long-term suspension is likely in his future based on past history). If he is suspended, no matter when the suspension hits it will be a major problem and could spell the end of the Cowboys playoff hopes. Dez’s selfish actions could have single handedly undone all the Cowboys off season work. No matter what, it is a major distraction that he and the entire team will have to deal with instead of focusing solely on football and the opener against the Giants.
My hope of course is that Bryant’s actions weren’t as bad as they’ve been described and that he is able to repair his relationship with his mother. Of course, from a team standpoint I hope he somehow escapes prosecution and suspension from the league, the Cowboys find their solid and dependable #3 receiver, are at full strength for the Giants, and start the season with a win. But, it remains to be seen. My fingers and toes are all crossed. Go Cowboys!