BALTIMORE — When the Baltimore Ravens play host to the Dallas Cowboys on Tuesday night (8:05 p.m. ET, Fox), many will say this is the real reason Dez Bryant returned to the NFL, a chance to show his former team how much he has left three years after his release.
While this reunion will resonate more than other games for Bryant, what has driven him in an unprecedented comeback for a three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver has been something more personal. He didn’t go through two tryouts with the Ravens and spend four weeks on the practice squad because of revenge. Bryant persisted in this humbling route back to the NFL because he didn’t have an answer to one important question.
During his two years out of football, his 5-year-old daughter Isabella frequently asked him on Sundays in the fall: “Why are you not playing football?”
Bryant kept ignoring her until he realized there wasn’t an explanation. He’s 32. He’s healthy. He never lost the desire to compete, win and capture a Super Bowl.
“You know what, baby,” Bryant told his daughter. “I’m going to give it a go.”
Dez Bryant thankful for signing to practice squadpic.twitter.com/3lPErA1
— Dez Bryant (@DezBryant) Dec. 7, 2020
Those close to Bryant said this sparked more desire for him to get back to the NFL. He began training three to four times a week with his personal coach, working on everything from his footwork in route running to his arm mechanics in catching the ball.
Bryant was attempting to accomplish something that had been done only once previously since the 1970 merger — a Pro Bowl wide receiver returning to the NFL after missing two full seasons. The difference is Josh Gordon was given back his starting job immediately when he came back to the Cleveland Browns in 2017. Bryant knew he had to earn everything.
Dez Bryant hauls in some nice catches during a workout.
It took Bryant two tryouts to convince the Ravens to give him a spot on the practice squad. After leaving an August tryout with Baltimore without a contract, Bryant returned two months later in better physical condition and landed a deal with no signing bonus or guarantees. Bryant tweeted: “My emotions running high right now… I’m thankful… I can’t stop crying.”
As part of the practice squad, Bryant earned $7,058 in his first week — a far cry from the $32 million guaranteed he received five years ago. He also didn’t sport his signature No. 88 jersey in his first practice. Working on the scout team, Bryant wore No. 11 because he was standing in for Steelers wide receiver Chase Claypool (who was 16 when Bryant led the NFL in touchdown receptions in 2014).
Why would Bryant go through this unglamorous process?
“He’s just on a mission to prove everybody that he’s still Dez Bryant,” said David Robinson, Bryant’s personal wide receiver coach. “He said he felt like his old self. He feels like he’s back as far as getting his rhythm back. He said he just has to continue to develop chemistry with the quarterback and learn the playbook a lot better. He definitely feels that he can help the Ravens a lot more than what they expect.”
By the end of his eight-year run in Dallas, Bryant had been labeled by some as selfish and a malcontent in the locker room. In his time in Baltimore, he has made it known that he is team first, a wide receiver who is as committed to run blocking as receptions.
Last month, Bryant was elevated off the practice squad and played in his first game in 1,043 days and got on the field for only two snaps. After the game, Bryant tweeted about the victory and not his playing time.
“He wants to win a Super Bowl,” Robinson said. “I mean, that’s really what he wants right now. He doesn’t really care about the stats, 1,000 yards, touchdowns. He just wants to help the team win in any way he can. He’s in a whole different mindset right now.”
Dez Bryant signs on for 53 man roster pic.twitter.com/2VScGMF
— Dez Bryant (@DezBryant) Dec. 8, 2020
Bryant has caught 535 passes in his career for 7,487 yards. His 73 touchdown catches are the most in Cowboys history and rank 40th in NFL history.
Where success has eluded him is in the playoffs. Many remember Bryant’s controversial “no catch” call in the 2014 postseason in Green Bay. What many forget was it was one of Bryant’s two appearances in the playoffs.
Bryant understands this could represent his final chance at a championship run.
“It’s like the competition kind of turned up once he stepped in the building,” Ravens quarterback Trace McSorley said. “The standard he holds himself to, and he just kind of bought in, and it seems like he brings guys along with him. How competitive he is, his positive attitude and everything he does, I think it’s been a great effect on the rest of our team. [I’m] definitely excited to have him with us, and [I’m] looking forward to being able to get him a little bit more involved where we can.”
Bryant hasn’t been given much of a chance to help the NFL’s 31st-ranked passing offense. In three games, Bryant has made four catches for 28 yards. He was starting to find a rapport with Lamar Jackson two weeks ago, but he was held without a catch last game when Robert Griffin III filled in for Jackson, who had tested positive for COVID-19.
“I feel good physically,” said Bryant, who was signed to the Ravens’ 53-man roster last week. “I think the coaches, they’re doing what they feel is best for me, because sometimes I think I can bite off more than I can chew. But whatever they have for me, I’m going to be prepared for it. I’m excited. I’m going to let the coaches do what they feel is best, and I’m just going to follow their lead.”
CBS analyst Tony Romo, who threw passes to Bryant when he quarterbacked the Cowboys, believes Bryant fills a void for Baltimore. Romo said the Ravens need a physical wide receiver like Bryant who can make contested catches.
“The catch radius is really his gift,” Romo said. “He has a really wide area you can throw it in and he can go get the ball. Even when he’s covered, he can still make a catch. Just throw it up over his head.”
History says Bryant could play a pivotal role in getting Baltimore (6-5) back in the playoff hunt against the Cowboys Tuesday night.
The last three times a team’s all-time leader in touchdown catches played against them for the first time, that player went on to record at least one touchdown reception, according to Elias Sports Bureau research. In all three of those instances, the player’s new team also went on to win.
“Yeah, you guys are just seeing a glimpse,” Robinson said. “Once he fully gets on the same page with Lamar and they start looking more for him on the red zone [and] on deeper passing routes, I definitely think he’s going to emerge as their go-to receiver.”