In football, you generally want your most talented players to have the ball as much as possible. But there also comes a time when the risk outweighs the reward.
By the numbers
Bryant has returned 11 punts this season for an average of 6.5 yards and a long of 44. That ranks Bryant no. 42 in the NFL in punt return average. He’s not exactly creating many game-changing plays on punt returns so far this season. But after last weekend’s adventure in Carolina, the Cowboys should take the hint.
Bryant returned three punts against the Panthers. He fielded the first punt at the Cowboys 11-yard line. That in itself is a no-no in returning punts. You’re not supposed to field the ball at or near the 10-yard line. He returned the punt 10 yards and promptly drew an unnecessary roughness call when he got into a shoving match with a Panthers player.
Bryant handled the ball as if he were preparing to throw a discus. It was precarious at best.
The second punt return was barely any better. Bryant caught it at midfield, returned it 10 yards and had a helmet-to-helmet collision. It was unintentional, but another spill like that could cost Bryant precious brain cells and playing time.
On his final return of the night, Bryant fielded the third punt at the Cowboys 12-yard line and lost three yards. He also nearly lost the ball as he pulled it down over his head. In the process of eluding a pair of Carolina defenders, Bryant handled the ball as if he were preparing to throw a discus. It was precarious at best.
At home in the danger zone
Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett saw what everyone else did, but he doesn’t appear ready to pull the trigger and get Bryant out of there.
“To be honest I thought [the last return] was aggressive, arguably too much,” Garrett said during a Monday press conference. “He’s so dynamic that you want to give him chances to return, but ball security is line one as a returner.
“He was aggressive catching it over his head and worse holding it as loosely as he did. You want to give him opportunities, but he has to secure it better. I think we were all relieved when he was tackled and he still had the ball.”
File that last sentence under “words you never want to hear a head coach say.”
Bryant did provide explosive plays his rookie season, returning 15 punts for 14.3 yards per return. He also scored two touchdowns.
Bryant’s value isn’t tied to punt returns. His value is tied to being a wide receiver.
But since then his numbers have slipped. Last year, he returned 15 punts and averaged just 6.7 yards and didn’t score. This year Bryant is about the same.
Bryant’s value isn’t tied to punt returns, however. His value is tied to being a wide receiver. Bryant has more receptions than any other Cowboys player so far this season with 36. He’s caught two touchdown passes.
Dallas has options beyond Bryant
Think about what might happen to this Cowboys offense — which is having difficulty scoring points to begin with — if they had to go an extended period without Bryant. Kevin Ogletree becomes your no. 2 wide receiver, but he’s not talented enough to eliminate the double teams that Miles Austin typically draws. More important, Bryant is starting to draw double teams of his own, which creates opportunities for Austin, Ogletree and tight end Jason Witten in single coverage.
Bryant could get hurt playing receiver. But why not minimize his exposure to injury by eliminating those extra special teams plays? Plus, Bryant is still developing as a receiver, even in his third season.
The so-called “Dez Rules” were designed to eliminate distractions for the third-year receiver and keep him focused on football. If Bryant’s value is tied to his receiving ability, doesn’t it make more sense to stop splitting his practice time — and thus his attention — between receiver and punt returner?
The Cowboys have wide receiver Dwayne Harris and running back Lance Dunbar. Harris has collegiate experience returning punts. Harris was an All-Conference USA First-Team punt returner at East Carolina. The Cowboys gave Dunbar a shot to return punts in preseason, and he returned one for a touchdown.
It’s time for the Cowboys to leave the “adventures” to someone else and let Bryant focus on being a receiver.