In the NFL, star wide-receivers are often the rock-stars of the league.
They get to score touchdowns. They get to do dances in the endzone. But, as Dez Bryant shows us, we also have seen negative conatations associated with players of this stature.
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Today, we continue our three-part series where we look at the careers of the two wide-receivers that were taken in the 1st-round of the 2010 NFL Draft: Demaryius Thomas and Dez Bryant.
Our first part looked into Demaryius Thomas’ football journey.
Now, in this article, we will look at Dez Bryant’s rise to stardom in the NFL, while talking about some of the major moments he faced along the way.
Our final iteration of this series will pick us up near the end of the careers of both players, as we examine how their journeys in the league seem to have come to a close despite being at a relatively young age for players of their prominence.
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Born in Galveston County, Texas in 1988, Bryant moved around a lot growing up, living anywhere from his Aunt’s, to his girlfriend’s and even briefly with his father–who Dez reportedly has no relationship with today.
Yet, like many kids, he was incredibly tight with his mother, Angela. Angela had him when she was just 15 years-old and did everything to provide for her kids. This even included selling drugs, something that Dez has said that he understood given their situation growing up. “The reason my mom sold drugs and went to jail is so we could live,” Dez would reflect on years later after he had reached the NFL.
He would attend Lufkin High School, where his football legacy would begin to grow. Only, to get to the next level, Bryant would also have to prove himself academically.
Growing up, he was often placed in special education classes, but in order to achieve the goal of playing at a big-time Division-1 College, he would have to meet their academic requirements. In his sophomore year at Lufkin, he met with teachers and academic advisors around the school to convince them to let him enrol in higher-level classes.
“I wasn’t a dummy,” Bryant said in an article years later, “When I didn’t feel like doing the work, I didn’t do it. When I felt like doing it, I did–and it was no problem.”
Bryant would quickly catch up over the next two years, particularly in math and english, and met the academic standards of many Power-5 football powers. Those that knew him at Lufkin, including multiple teachers, have spoke highly of how hard Dez worked during those years to achieve his goals.
On the field, there was never a question. As a Junior, Dez caught 48 passes for over 1,000 yards and 16 touchdowns as Lufkin made it all the way to the State Semi-Finals in the always-competitive realm of Texas high school football. As a Senior, Bryant would cement his place on the recruiting radar, with over 1,200 yards and a ridiculous 21 touchdowns. This would earn him a spot in the Offense-Defense All-American Bowl in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
Arriving in Stillwater, Oklahoma
In the class of 2006, Bryant was deemed the #48 prospect nationally, while being the #7 rated wide-receiver, and #7 rated player in Texas. As such, recruiting for the Lufkin star heated-up quickly.
Per ESPN.com (seen above), Bryant was pursued by multiple big-time schools such as Oklahoma, and Texas A&M. But, the receiver decided to make Stillwater, Oklahoma his new home when he signed an offer with Oklahoma State. In a 2015 article with the Dallas News, Bryant would say the main motivating factor in choosing OSU was that the school’s interest never wavered throughout the entire process.
Throughout his three-year college career with the Cowboys from 2007 to 2009, he would amass 147 receptions for nearly 2,500 yards and 29 touchdowns, all in just 28 career games. The true highlight was his 2008 season, where he went for 87 receptions, 1,480 yards, and 19 receiving touchdowns. He also added 2 punt-return scores for good measure. The campaign included an unbelievable 6 games with multiple touchdowns, including 4 with 3 or more. Overall, his 19 receiving touchdowns that season still stand today as the 2nd-best in the decorated school’s history.
When approaching his Junior season, the sky was the limit for Bryant, who seemed destined to become the best wide-receiver available for the upcoming 2010 NFL Draft. Only, his third-season in Stillwater didn’t go as planned.
In the offseason, Dez had been interrogated by the NCAA after he was found to be lying to the authorities about his relationship with Pro Football Hall of Famer Dion Sanders. Bryant had been discovered having dinner at Sanders’ home, which was not properly disclosed under the NCAA’s rules. Bryant would play in three games before the NCAA suspended him for the remainder of his Junior season.
Bryant felt he was sold a false bit of goods, stating, “I just felt the manner in which I was interrogated by the NCAA was an experience I never had before…The manner they asked the questions led me to believed that I did something wrong when in fact I had not.”
2010 NFL Draft
After being suspended for the vast majority of his Junior season at OSU, Bryant declared for the 2010 NFL Draft, where he was consistently listed among the best available at his position.
During the lead-up to the draft, Bryant opted out of participating in on-field drills at the NFL Scouting Combine, instead focusing squarely on his Pro-Day which would be held a few weeks later.
At that Pro-Day, Bryant shined with a 38-inch vertical-jump, while running a 4.52 second 40-yard-dash. He also measured in at 225 lbs, while having 9.75-inch hands. All of these measurables would confirm what many had already long-believed: Dez was an elite wide-receiver prospect.
On WalterFootball.com’s list of wide-receivers in 2010, he was listed as the #1 prospect. Under his profile read: “Dez Bryant forgot to bring his cleats to his Pro-Day but still managed to run a 4.52–a pretty standard time for him. He also impressively notched an 11-1 broad jump. Unfortunately, he dropped some passes in the drills, but anyone familiar with his game shouldn’t be surprised by that, as he has lapses in concentration at times. Bryant remains a top-20 pick and the no. 1 wideout in this class.”
However, Bryant took a bit of a tumble on draft-night, albeit not too long of one. After all of the league’s teams passed on wide-receivers in the top-20, many speculated that he wouldn’t make it past the receiver-hungry Broncos at #22. Yet, that’s exactly what would occur, as Denver surprised many by taking Georgia Tech’s Demaryius Thomas instead.
Luckily, the wait for Bryant didn’t last much longer. In a move that looks like destiny in hindsight, he would be drafted by Dallas at #24, making the transition to another variety of Cowboy after a successful college run at Oklahoma State.
A Slow, but Steady Rise
Much like his fellow drafted-receiver Thomas, Bryant didn’t exactly light the field on fire over his first couple of seasons in Dallas. Still, these opening years for Bryant would show flashes of what was to come, even if the moments in these seasons were far between.
In 2010, the Cowboys had significant expectations after finishing with an 11-5 record in 2009 while reaching the NFC Divisional-Round. The team had a productive passer in the form of Tony Romo, while having some defensive-stars such as pass-rusher Demarcus Ware. Adding to an already potent receiving-core was Bryant, who joined the likes of tight-end Jason Witten and veteran Roy Williams on the Cowboys. Altogether, many expected Dallas to be in the mix in a strong NFC.
Unfortunately, Dallas’ 2010 season would suffer hiccups from the get-go. The offense would sputter during a Week 1 loss to the Redskins, producing only 7 points, while Romo would throw several interceptions over the first five weeks. In those games, Dallas would go only 1-4, losing several tight match-ups.
Already starting to appear dead in the water after such a poor start, the Cowboys would lose Romo to injury during Week 7 versus the New York Giants, one that would sideline him for the remainder of the 2010 campaign. This injury blow would eliminate virtually any chance of the Cowboys rebounding over the course of the rest of the season.
In his absence, veteran Jon Kitna would take the reigns, leading the team to a respectable 6-10 finish by season’s end.
Bryant would produce 45 catches for 561 yards and 6 touchdowns in his rookie season. His best game came in Week 10 versus New York, when he caught 3 passes for a season-high 104 yards and a touchdown in the team’s victory.
However, it wasn’t all great that year for Bryant, as he finished on a low-note, suffering an injury in Week 13 that would cause him to miss the team’s remaining 5 games.
Of course, his play and injuries weren’t the only thing that defined his debut year. Going into the draft, there was arising concern about Dez’s maturity and character in a team environment, and this reared its ugly-head in many eyes during 2010. In a game against the New Orleans Saints, Bryant would blow up on the sidelines, pointing fingers, as he reportedly felt he wasn’t receiving enough targets on that particular day. While this is something that has been known to happen around the NFL, this incident was notable as one of the first incidents Bryant critics pointed to in regards to the receivers’ character.
The 2011 Cowboys, with now a healthy Romo, once again had enhanced expectations as they looked to improve on their 6-10 record from the year-before.
In the offseason, the team parted ways with former starting-receiver Roy Williams. This opened up a clear opportunity for Bryant to play an increased role, and he sure took advantage of it.
Though he didn’t put up any 100-yard-games, Bryant improved drastically on his rookie form. In all, he caught 63 passes from Romo to go along with 928 yards and an impressive 9 touchdowns. This is the year he began to emerge as a favourite target for the gunslinger Romo, who evidently liked what Dez brought to the table as a guy who was dominant in contested-catch situations.
Despite this new budding-duo, the Cowboys would ultimately be left disappointed with their 2011 results. Dallas would begin the season 7-4, but crashed down the stretch, losing four of their last five, including a Week 17 winner-take-all for the NFC East title against the New York Giants. This was an era of disappointment for Cowboys’ fans, as the team never seemed to play up to their perceived talent-level on a week-to-week basis. Still, the emergence of Bryant, who was only 23, gave the franchise hope for a major-breakthrough.
Throwing Up the “X”
Come the year of 2012, we were entering the stage where Bryant’s potential for both bad and good was put on full-display.
Before the season could start, however, Dez would have perhaps his most controversial moment. On July 16th 2012, the receiver was arrested on a misdemeanor domestic violence charge for allegedly hitting his own biological mother, Angela Bryant. While the extent of the incident was reportedly overblown according to some observers–and the charges were dropped– this did nothing to quell any existing character concerns. As such, this would prompt the Cowboys to essentially baby-sit the receiver, installing restrictions and a personal security team that would be with him at all times. As you could imagine, given how much of a national spotlight is on the Cowboys, this would make the rounds in the media and become a major news story. So, how would Dez respond?
Over his football career, Bryant would come to be known for his iconic touchdown celebration that included making an “X” across his chest. Bryant would comment on this in 2014, saying “the X is for all the defenses,” while adding that it is his way of blocking out all the negativity that people have thrown his way. And BOY, did he do just that in the wake of his much-publicized 2012 offseason.
Though Dallas would undergo another up-and-down season, it was anything but that for the Cowboys third-year receiver. Bryant would finally provide the explosive element that many thought he would when he entered the league in 2010.
He started out the season with 4 receptions for 85 yards in a season-opening win against the New York Giants. After a few mediocre contests, he was back at it again with 8 catches for 105 yards in Week 4 against the Chicago Bears, while following up by nabbing 13 balls for 95 yards and a pair of scores against Baltimore in Week 5. There would be even more “X” celebrations in the weeks to come, including back-to-back 145 yard performances in Weeks 11-12 against Washington and Cleveland, respectively. However, his best showing from his 2012 season occured against the New Orleans Saints late in the season as the Cowboys were jostling for playoff positioning.
In a game in which the Cowboys would lose in overtime, Bryant was flat-out dominant in trying to will his team to victory. Early in the 2nd-quarter, Romo would find Bryant deep for a 58-yard touchdown and repeated the feat later in the frame with another score of the exact same distance. In all, he would haul in 9 passes for 224 yards and those 2 aforementioned touchdowns, and despite the team falling to 8-7, this was a game that Dez let the NFL know he was capable of being a PROBLEM for defenses.
On a team level, after losing to New Orleans in Week 16, Dallas faced a make-or-break Week 17 matchup with the division-rival Redskins, which if they won, would have secured the NFC East title. Ultimately though, just as they had done the year before, Dallas faltered in the big-moment against their divisional-foe, losing to Washington, who was led by rookie sensation Robert Griffin III. This would mark the third consecutive season in which the franchise missed out on the postseason.
Still, for Bryant, it was by far his best showing yet. For 2012, his totals would stand at 92 catches for 1,382 yards and 12 touchdowns, establishing himself as a legit #1 target in Dallas’ offense.
2013 produced much of the same story, for both Bryant and the Cowboys in general.
The team was coming off back-to-back 8-8 seasons, and this trend held serve for a third year in a row as the Cowboys suffered from the same inconsistencies that had often plagued them in recent years.
Dallas wasn’t lacking for talent, at least on the offensive side of the ball. Bryant built on his 2012 success, putting up over 1,200 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns, while even being selected to his first Pro-Bowl. Romo, meanwhile, had another fantastic statistical season, throwing for 31 touchdowns against just 10 interceptions. In the backfield, running-back DeMarco Murray completely broke out, rushing for over 1,000 yards.
But the Cowboys often found themselves in high-stakes shootouts with some of the league’s better offenses, which was usually their undoing. One perfect example of this was the team’s Week 5 matchup versus Demaryius Thomas and the Denver Broncos, who were putting together a dominant offensive season. Romo and Bryant would put forth a spectacular effort, with the former passing for 5 touchdowns and the latter scoring a pair of touchdowns to go along with 141 yards. The offense as a whole would put up 48 points, but the defense struggled to slow down Thomas and the Broncos, surrendering 51 in the loss.
Despite some outcomes like this, the Cowboys were well-positioned for a playoff berth after a solid 7-5 start to the season. This was before the team would drop three of their last four games, once again finishing at 8-8. A Romo-injury that kept him out of Week 17 versus the Eagles would doom the Cowboys, who were eliminated from contention on the season’s final-day for the third year in a row.
In 2014, things would finally come together for Dez and the Cowboys, resulting in the receivers’ career-best season and the team’s return to the playoffs.
While Dallas would drop the season opener in San Francisco, they would respond by rallying off six-straight victories, with Bryant putting up a streak of four consecutive games with a touchdown.
Dallas would feed off this production, winning 6 of those 7 games, allowing the team to easily secure the NFC East title and a place in the playoffs with a 12-4 record. Unfortunately, that 12-4 record in that particular season would not be enough for a first-round bye, forcing Dallas to play in the Wild-Card Round.
There, they would matchup with the Detroit Lions. While the offense remained pretty dormant for most of the contest, Bryant and the Cowboys were able to string a couple drives together late to take the lead and never look back. While a controversial non-pass-interference call aided their cause, Dallas was nevertheless on to the Divisional-Round of the NFL Playoffs.
Heading to Lambeau Field to play the Green Bay Packers in the next round, the Cowboys faced a tall-task. Yet, with Bryant, Romo and Murray all at the top of their games in 2014, this gave Dallas hope for pulling out a win.
In a back-and-forth battle, the Packers would take a 26-21 lead in the 4th quarter, but the Cowboys had plenty of time for a response.
Driving with under five minutes to play, the Cowboys had entered Green Bay territory but faced a 4th & 2 situation. Who would the team turn to in a pinch? Romo dropped back to pass, looked to his left and saw Bryant in a one-on-one matchup with Packers cornerback Sam Shields. The quarterback, who was known for his risk-taking style of play, decided to give his receiver a shot, tossing a deep pass towards the end-zone.
Bryant, almost looking like Hercules, would elevate over Shields to high-point the pass, snatching it out of the air while falling towards the turf. It appeared like the Cowboys would have a 1st-down inside of the Green Bay 5-yard-line, but in one of the most controversial decisions in NFL history, the officials ruled that Bryant had failed to complete “the process of the catch” as he made contact with the ground, rendering the pass incomplete.
The Cowboys, after the failed 4th-down conversion, were noticeably deflated and never saw the ball again in the game as they fell by a final-score of 26-21.
After the game, there would be countless questions about what could have happened had the reception went the other way given how well Dallas was playing that season.
Sadly, this would unfortunately mark the end of an era for this core of offensive-playmakers. Bryant, Romo and especially Murray–who captured the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year honours–all had spectacular seasons, and everything seemed to fall into place in 2014. This would be the high-point of success for the trio, as Murray would leave in free agency, while Romo and Bryant, partially due to injuries, would never quite reach the same level of play in subsequent seasons.
For Bryant, he finished 2014 with 88 receptions for 1,320 yards and a league-high 16 touchdowns while being named to his first and only All-Pro Team.
The New-Look Big “D”
In 2015, the Cowboys largely ran back the team that won 12 games the year prior, minus the loss of their All-Pro running-back Murray. Still, the team had the dynamic-duo of Romo and Bryant to rely upon.
Only, it seemed like the team’s magic from the year before had dried-up. Dallas would begin the year strong at 3-1, but a Romo collarbone-injury would sink the ship for the rest of the season. Bryant, too, was banged up, playing in only 9 games while producing career-lows across the board as a result. The Cowboys would finish the year 4-12, and at the bottom of the NFC East.
This injury-plagued season also did not come without controversy for Dez. In the offseason, the receiver would make news for taking in a capuchin monkey as a pet in his Dallas home, who he named after the city itself. This attracted some criticism, particularly from animal rights’ groups such as PETA, who believed the monkey belonged in the wild and not in the hands of a professional football player for the sake of publicity and attention. Eventually, Dez would have to give his monkey away, but insisted that he was well taken care of. “He was one of us, the monkey was one of us,” the receiver said at the time. “He got pure A-1 treatment.”
Come 2016, change was in the air in Dallas, but not exactly by design.
In the team’s third preseason-game, which is typically used as a dress-rehearsal for regular-starters, Romo would suffer a significant back-injury, one that would wipe out the majority of his 2016 season. In his absence, little-known Dak Prescott, whom the team selected in the 4th-round of the most recent draft, would emerge as a surprising but legitimate starter. The rookie would impress so much that, even when Romo was eligible to return late season, the youngster wouldn’t give up the reigns.
Prescott and Cowboys 1st-round pick Ezekiel Elliott combined to make one of the most lethal rookie-duos in recent NFL history, feeding off each other while energizing the fan-base. Prescott would win the NFL’s Rookie of the Year Award, Elliott would lead the league in rushing-yards, while the Cowboys, most importantly, finished with the NFC’s best record at 13-3.
However, lingering in the background during this time was Bryant, who was affected by the quarterback change. In his first season with Prescott in 2016, he caught 50 passes for 796 yards and 8 touchdowns in 13 games, numbers that aren’t anything to scoff at. Yet, these still represented major drop-offs from when Romo was at the helm.
For whatever reason, Bryant rarely seemed to have the same sort of special connection with Prescott that he did with Romo. It’s easy to speculate that this was largely a result of style of play differences between the two quarterbacks. Romo was always characterized as a risk-taker, often giving his receivers chances to make plays in tough, contested situations. This is where Bryant, at his best, truly excelled. Prescott, on the other hand, played more of a ball-control, safe-style which didn’t always provide the receiver many chances to take-control. This isn’t to say the pair didn’t have moments, however.
The 13-3 Cowboys would be heavy favourites against the visiting Green Bay Packers in the Divisional-Round, with the intention of enacting-revenge from just a few years earlier. In a nail-bitting affair, Bryant would play like a star, catching 9 passes for 132 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Unfortunately, this effort would once again end in heartbreak, as Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was able to silence Dallas, leading his team on a last-minute game-winning drive to seal a 34-31 victory.
For Bryant, this would be one of his best all-time performances, while at the same time, also marking one of his last. A receiver with plenty of talent, he also brought with him significant baggage that included off-field distractions and an injury-history, all while the team was moving forward with a young-duo as their focus. As a result, we can look back on these years and see where things began to turn downward for the star from Galveston County.
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