Thursday, September 29, 2016

Dez Is Hurt Again. Now What?

I think it is safe to imagine that in the back of every owner/general manager's mind when they sign a long-term NFL deal with a star player is the worst-case scenario.  For instance, in early July 2015 when the Cowboys locked down Dez Bryant for 5 years at $70 million, the idea was that you would enjoy more of the same from 2014 when he was one of the best receivers in the sport, not lose him to injury after injury.

Unfortunately, in the first year of his deal, his age-26 season was almost completely washed out with painful incidents.  First, in the season opener against the Giants and then again in the end zone when he made an amazing catch against the Eagles in early November. 
The plan in 2016 was that his age-27 season was going to be far better.  The training in the offseason put him in a position to bounce back to superstar status that was last seen that day at Lambeau Field in January of 2015.  But, it now appears another work-related injury has appeared and will make the Cowboys do something they were not prepared to do last year: move the ball without Dez Bryant.
The problems that are associated with playing without Tony Romo and Bryant are enough to cause massive heartburn among any Cowboys loyalist, largely because the Cowboys looked so ill prepared to pull off such a feat just last season.  But, Dak Prescott has filled the masses with confidence as not only a reasonable understudy to Romo, but causing a whole new generation to learn the name Wally Pipp. 
But, that was with the elite value of Bryant.  Not always in fantasy football statistics, but more importantly, in the reality of dictating coverages.  Opposing defensive coordinators spend every week learning how to take away your strength.  Dez Bryant is the main focus that occupies the secondary.  Many weeks, the opponent will demand that you beat them with Cole Beasley, Jason Witten, or that vaunted running game.  Because Bryant affects the math with his presence, they often do win that way.
This week, though, and likely through the bye week, the Cowboys are expected to have to figure things out without Bryant and Romo all over again.  This time, Scott Linehan and Jason Garrett are determined to get it right.  This will require doing it against more tightly compacted defenses that crowd the line of scrimmage to take away the running game and safe underneath throws. 

The solutions don't fill you with optimism.  Brice Butler looks the part, but he has not been given enough chance to demonstrate the ability to produce yet.  Terrance Williams seems far more suited to complementary roles where he is not counted upon to get open.  Gavin Escobar is merely a special teams body these days. 
Bryant keeps opponents honest, which is something that nobody else on this offense can do past 10 yards.  We saw what happened last year because of that.  The vertical game died, the safeties walked up, and even the shorter windows closed because they were not scared of your threats getting behind them. 
I have been impressed with the creativity of the offense to this point in 2016, but now, any plans of keeping Prescott out of tough spots is likely gone.  He will have to win with his feet, fit the ball into traffic, and expand more on the zone-read game with Ezekiel Elliott that we saw a few weeks back.
But, until they prove they can still move the ball without Bryant threatening opponents, you can bet this represents Jerry Jones' worst-case scenario of how that contract would pay off back in July of 2015.

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