Editor’s note: The following is a guest post by ESPN writer Michael Pina. We’d like to thank Michael for choosing The Landry Hat as a forum to talk about the Dallas Cowboys. Enjoy his article. – SM
During the second half of last season, the name Dez Bryant was finally and fully recognized for more than a slew of unfortunate incidents away from the field. Bryant was instead recognized for his ability, his production, his consistency, his toughness, and his unstopability (a word I just made up to describe Dez Bryant and Dez Bryant alone).
On the year, his third, Bryant hauled in 92 balls (10th in the league), 12 of them touchdowns (only James Jones and Eric Decker tallied more), for 1382 yards. His 13.6 yards per touch ranked eighth, and his 86.4 yards per game ranked sixth.
Bryant racked up 463 yards after the catch, placing him ninth among wide receivers. He was targeted 138 times, 26 fewer times than A.J. Green (who also finished with 32 lesser receiving yards), and 12 less times than teammate Jason Witten. Nineteen of Bryant’s receptions were at least 20 yards, a feat only five receivers surpassed(Calvin Johnson, Demaryius Thomas, Vincent Jackson, Andre Johnson, and Reggie Wayne).
Nearly every one of the statistics listed above arrives at a noticeable incline from his sophomore season. He grabbed 30 more passes for about 350 more yards and three more touchdowns. His per game numbers spiked at a rate that leaves mouths all over Dallas open and drooling.
It all begs the question: At the age of 25, how much better can Dez Bryant be? Cowboys Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin seems to think 2000 yards are in Bryant’s immediate future, a figure that’s been sniffed, but never breached.
Last year, Undisputed King of the Wide Receiver Universe, Calvin Johnson, gained 1964 yards through the air, in an offense that featured very little else for opposing defenses to key in on. Johnson’s figure is an NFL record. And despite the league obviously stuck in a pass-happy era, receivers aren’t exactly shattering record books. Starting with Randy Moss’ 1493 yards in 2007 (36th all-time), his first year with the New England Patriots, playing in a revolutionary offense that’s still the best football has ever seen, only six receivers have done better since.
Strictly going from his yards received, Dez Bryant’s 2012 campaign ranks as the 81st finest season a receiver has ever had. Apart from natural improvements sure to be made in his individual game, and, hopefully, with Dallas’ offensive line, in order for 2000 yards to become realistic Bryant must stay healthy next season. Last season he missed two games with a badly injured finger and still put up total numbers that put him in an elite category.
This might sound obvious (because it is), but another way Bryant can make a run at Calvin Johnson’s record, and the 2000 yard mark, is by being productive every single week.
In five games last year he went for less than 60 yards, including a three catch, 17-yard effort against the Seattle Seahawks, a two catch, 14-yard effort against the Carolina Panthers, and a one catch, 15-yard effort against the Atlanta Falcons.
According to Football Outsiders, Bryant posted a catch rate of 67% last year, meaning 67% of all passes thrown to Bryant were completed, a number equaling former New England Patriots receiver Wes Welker and San Francisco 49ers’ receiver Michael Crabtree. Calvin Johnson posted a 60% catch rate while Roddy White’s was at 64%. (FO notes that catch rate is in reference to incomplete passes, but does not include dropped passes.)
Bryant can catch everything, against any corner. He can snare a back-shoulder fade at the goal line, run a crisp drag route then run for 10 more yards after the catch, curl in (or out) for a first down on a button hook or quick slant whenever Dallas needs it, give defensive coordinators and cornerbacks matching heart palpitations with a gorgeous corner route on the sideline.
He can run a flawless hitch, catch the ball then drag two or three defenders an extra 3-5 yards.
Is 2000 yards possible? Sure, it’s possible. Definitely not a likely scenario, but it’s possible. Bryant is a rare talent, possessing perhaps the finest physical intangibles out of any receiver in the league, not including Calvin Johnson.
Watching him burst closer to his ceiling this season should make the Cowboys one of the most difficult offenses to strategize against. Now that questions about Bryant producing at a high level have been answered, how he reacts (on the field) to being graded relative to the greats at his position will be fun to watch.
Michael Pina is a writer for ESPN’s TrueHoop Network. He also writes for ScoreBig. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelVPina.