The Dallas Cowboys continue to play with fire as receiver Dez Bryant returned punts during the team’s OTAs on Wednesday. Why in the world this player, who Hall of Famer Michael Irvin said would become the NFL’s best receiver, is working on special teams, where he’s suffered two critical injuries already in his young career, is mind-numbing. It simply should be happening, yet Cowboys owner Jerry Jones continues to “support” it.
“I have no issue with us making business decisions relative to him returning punts,” Jones said. “What I do want him to do is to get enough repetitions so he can have a sense of fielding them and when to field them and when not to field them and make those kinds of judgments, but I like him back there to use him.”
Jones went on to say Bryant is “quite a weapon” on special teams, which is true (he returned two of 15 attempts for touchdowns as a rookie in 2010), but he’s a much more lethal weapon on offense, where the Cowboys need him the most. In addition to the scores, Bryant’s 14.3 yards-per-return average was second among returners with at least 15 returns in 2010.
However, it was during a kick return that Bryant broke his ankle on Dec. 5, 2010, ending his rookie season early, and while he was a “weapon” as a returner, he also suffered a deep thigh bruise that drastically affected his play for the first six weeks of the 2011 season. Following his stellar rookie season as a returner, Bryant only averaged 6.9 yards on 15 returns as a sophomore and failed to record one special teams touchdown.
So, in short, Bryant is a decent weapon on special teams, but he’s way too injury-prone to be used in such a high-risk part of the game. Bryant played in 15 games during the 2011 season, but was only healthy for about half of them, yet still recorded 63 receptions for 928 yards and nine touchdowns. Imagine if he hadn’t have injured his thigh on that punt return in the opener. He might have recorded 90 catches, 1,200-plus yards and 13 touchdowns.
That is the kind of season he’s capable of producing if he’s healthy. However, that will never happen if he’s not healthy and in good shape. Bryant has missed so much conditioning and practice time because of injury that he’s never been in tremendous football shape as a pro. With his first full NFL off-season and 100% focus on being an elite receiver, Bryant can become that player Irvin believes he can.
Now all this receiver talk isn’t a knock on special teams; it is indeed one-third of the game, but Bryant is far more productive as a receiver than as a punt returner. More importantly, the Cowboys’ offense is that much more dangerous with him on the field.
Even when he’s not making a circus catch for a touchdown over a defender who’s in perfect position, Bryant draws an incredible amount of defensive attention. This, in turn, takes pressure off Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo and running back DeMarco Murray, making them that much more effective.
All things considered, it just doesn’t make sense for Dallas to use Bryant on punt returns. If he misses time again this year due to injury, the Cowboys don’t have Laurent Robinson there to fill in for him. That’s not to say that Dallas’ new No. 3 receiver won’t be effective, but’s certainly no guarantee.
Jones says all Bryant needs to do is learn when to field punts and when to let them go, which is very true, but he’s extremely competitive and confident, so he’s not going to let a ball bounce if he’s within 15 yards of it. That’s natural for an athlete of his caliber, just like his resiliency while returning the ball, which is why he’s injured so often.
A guy like Bryant being stood up while a defender has a hold on his ankle is a sitting duck for a backup linebacker on special teams to ring his bell, which could result in a concussion, a broken ankle (again) or both.
Bryant is injury-prone as a player in general, so putting him in the most dangerous position on the field is simply foolish. If he misses time in 2012 due to injury and it costs Dallas the playoffs again, Jones will be singing a different tune this time next year.