Last week, Cowboys Executive Vice President Stephen Jones told reporters that he didn’t know why the team’s former receiver Dez Bryant, who was released in mid-April, was still unsigned. Bryant, after all, had established himself as one of the league’s best players at his position during his eight seasons with a star on his helmet. Speaking to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Jones said, “I don’t know the details as to why he hasn’t picked a home. I am sure he is being very thoughtful about it. I am sure he has good people talking to him too. I am sure at the end of the day he is being thoughtful about what his next steps should be. I am sure he is working hard. No one is rooting for Dez more than we are.”
As an executive with an NFL franchise, Jones knows how a few things work. He knows, for example, that players don’t “pick a home”; they receive contract offers from teams, and choose whether or not to accept them. Bryant has only received one such offer, a multi-year deal with the Baltimore Ravens, which he declined in the hopes of receiving a one-year offer from another team. (Because contracts in the NFL aren’t guaranteed, a multi-year deal would give the team the ability to control Bryant’s rights for seasons to come without offering an opportunity to earn more money if he plays well.)
Jones also knows that teams are actively seeking out players like Bryant is at the start of the free agency period, which began in the second week of March, when Bryant was still under contract with the Cowboys. While Bryant waited to learn if he’d be playing in Arlington in the fall, some three dozen other wide receivers signed around the NFL. This list included other aging veterans and stars with question marks like the ones surrounding Bryant—Michael Crabtree, Mike Wallace, Danny Amendola, and Jordy Nelson, all of whom are older than Bryant (who won’t turn 30 until midway through the 2018 season), all signed multi-million dollar deals months ago. Nelson, a surprise release from the Green Bay Packers, had his contract terminated on March 13, exactly a month before Bryant was finally free to pursue his next opportunity.
The Cowboys’ decision to wait until April to release Bryant is mystifying. Normally in a situation like that, a team will release a player only reluctantly, if the two sides are attempting to renegotiate a contract and can’t come to terms. But Bryant wasn’t offered a pay cut, he was simply released. Will McClay, the Cowboys VP of player personnel, told reporters in early May that the decision wasn’t about money, but rather about Bryant’s on-field performance over the last couple of seasons. “It was a collective deal,” McClay told the Star-Telegram at the beginning of May. “The [inability] to win one-on-one, to win down field. There was inconsistency as well as some huge things in his play. So what’s best moving forward for Dez Bryant and the Cowboys, we just made that decision. It’s a production-based business.” The team signed free agent receiver Allen Hurns as Bryant’s replacement on March 26. Even if they were waiting to make sure they’d have a big-bodied receiver to play on the outside in Bryant’s stead, they had that information almost three weeks before they eventually let Bryant go.
Dallas sports radio host Bob Sturm suggested the only logical reason the Cowboys might have waited so long, but it’s not actually logical at all:
I just spent 10 minutes having this exact conversation. It really makes no sense unless they needed 2 months to wear down Jerry. https://t.co/bmiDmPllRj
— Bob Sturm (@SportsSturm) April 13, 2018
It is definitely possible that Jerry Jones stubbornly insisted on keeping Bryant, while McClay and Stephen, the owner’s son, spent months showing him tape of Bryant’s lack of chemistry with Dak Prescott. But that’s not the sign of an organization with consistent leadership, or of one that treats its players respectfully.
Neither are McClay’s comments. Certainly, there’s something refreshing about seeing an NFL front office exec speak with candor about personnel decisions—too often, those questions are met with dissembling or out right refusals to answer—but it’s surprising to see the team’s director of player personnel insist that Bryant’s skills are diminishing while he’s on the street looking for a job. At the very least, it would make any player interested in signing with the Cowboys in the future consider the possibility of being badmouthed in the press by the team’s leadership.
Bryant might be washed up, certainly. His past two seasons didn’t demonstrate the skills he’d shown in the six previous years. But it’s also undeniable that Bryant and Prescott didn’t have anything near the on field rapport that the receiver had with Tony Romo. Had he hit free agency back in March, the list of teams looking to see if his skills had diminished the way that McClay claims, or if he was struggling to find his timing with a quarterback he didn’t connect with, would have almost certainly been a lot longer.
Still, it’s possible that Bryant will land somewhere before the season starts (even if sources close to the receiver told reporters late last week that it probably won’t be until training camp starts in July). Last week, the Seattle Seahawks signed 32-year-old receiver Brandon Marshall—who, like Bryant, is a potent red zone target coming off of a few bad years and with a reputation for being difficult in the locker room—to a one-year, $2 million contract. At this point, trying to guess what team might be interested in offering Bryant a similar deal is a sucker’s game; gambling website Bovada, which had listed betting odds on his eventual home, is no longer taking action. But whether it’s a team looking to replace a player who suffers a training camp injury, or one that finds during offseason workouts that the current slate of receivers could use an upgrade, Bryant’s shown too much during his career to spend 2018 on his couch—even if the Cowboys didn’t do him any favors in moving on to his eventual next job.