FRISCO, Texas – Tony Romo, gone. Jason Witten, aging. A remixed secondary, more defensive suspensions and a litany of unknown young commodities.
The potential for gray areas and gray hairs is abundant for the Dallas Cowboys. But the calendar is also just rolling over to June, so there is also that other bottomless resource in this franchise: offseason optimism.
“This is the best team that I’ve ever been a part of,” wideout Dez Bryant said Wednesday.
The practice complex may have upgraded by more than a billion dollars, but the summer product in the locker room has a familiar feel. Whether in Dallas or Frisco, June is still a peak month in the Jerry Jones hope factory. Inevitably, someone always has a hard hat on. On Wednesday it was Bryant putting in the work, alternating between buoyant and self-reflective. With an airiness that is usually reserved for full-squad veteran minicamp – when teams get their first real look at their talent ceiling – Bryant beamed about the roster. And specifically, what he can do with a healthy season alongside Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott.
“The sky is the limit for us,” Bryant said Wednesday. “The way that we communicate, the way that we get better. Me, [Dak] and Zeke were just watching film yesterday after practice. All of that plays a factor into moving forward this year. Nobody told us to do that, you know, we just want to be better as a whole. It shows up. Just like today – not just me, but the rest of the wide receivers, the whole offense. Whenever you want something, it’s going to show up.”
Bryant spent a fair amount of time praising the all-in nature of this latest iteration of Dallas, talking up the near 100 percent attendance in organized team activities. Still, there was a void. For almost anyone who has been around the franchise for the past decade, it was odd that Romo’s locker was absent in the new palatial complex that is a staggering homage to all things Cowboys.
The offseason work in Dallas has almost become a testament to the NFL’s unflinching forward momentum. The Romo void is filling with the largest crush of cameras and microphones now reserved for Prescott and Elliott. Prescott has long seemed comfortable with it, handling the media largely the same way he guided the offense as a rookie – with focus and evenhandedness that is the stuff of a 10-year veteran. Elliott? Well, he waved off reporters Wednesday. Given the propensity of off-field stories that continue to develop around him (big or small), that seems destined to be a regular occurrence.
Even with Witten being the elder statesmen and Bryant being such an overwhelming emotional compass, the pinnacle of hope has quickly become Prescott and Elliott.
None of that should be a surprise given the state of the roster. If there’s a unit that has a chance to be special – maybe Super Bowl special – it’s this offense, which should get only more substantial with each stride Prescott takes. That’s good because the defense is still looking like the great unknown. Randy Gregory is suspended for the season and looking like the Dallas version of Dion Jordan, destined to be written off without any meaningful contribution. Defensive end David Irving is staring at a four-game PED ban, which is a frustrating reality for a player whose development is badly needed. And now cornerback Nolan Carroll faces the potential of a league reprimand after a DWI arrest.
And lest anyone forget, the Cowboys still have no idea what they’re going to get from Jaylon Smith and his nerve-damaged knee. Regardless of optimism, he’s a player who hasn’t hit anyone in almost 18 months. Until he does, there’s virtually no way the team can count on him for anything meaningful. The same goes for even the most intriguing rookie draft picks – defensive end Taco Charlton, slot wideout Ryan Switzer and cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis. The measuring stick for that quartet will materialize in training camp and preseason games. Only then will Dallas have an idea how much it’ll shore up a secondary that lost quality talent at cornerback and safety.
In a way, that makes Bryant’s offseason optimism a huge plus at this stage. While it’s common, his vocal investment in this team speaks volumes. Not only because he will be paramount to the growth of Prescott, but also because Dallas appears to be headed for a season that necessitates consistent high-scoring offense. And the focal point of defenses is going to be Elliott because so much of the game flowed through him last season.
The need for Bryant to have a monster season is there. Maybe more than ever. If he’s healthy and able to return to the player who was a first-team All Pro in 2014, it’s a dimension that could have a multiplying effect – balancing Elliott’s load and opening slot opportunities that will enhance Prescott’s growth. He seems keenly aware of that, too, professing that he feels a certain level of maturity that typically comes only when a player advances deeper into his prime. At 28, Bryant seems like a player who is grasping football mortality and what it takes to move to the next stage of his career.
“I know for myself and I know for [Terrance Williams] and a lot of these wide receivers, I plan to be in rare condition,” Bryant said. “I mean that. I’ve been taking it extremely serious. I want to lead by example. I don’t want to run my mouth. I want to go hard each and every play. If it’s not a pass play, I want to go hard in that run game just as if I was getting the ball in a pass play. That’s my goal, and I feel like that’s everybody else’s goal – is to be better than last year. We’ve got a lot of great building blocks from last year. It’s nothing to sit on. It’s how can we move forward and get better? How can we take that next step? I feel like we’re doing that in the offseason by doing things that we don’t have to do.”
That’s a lot of optimism in June, with the season three months away. But from the perspective of the coaching staff, it’s coming from the perfect guy. The one who – whether he wants the responsibility or not – will go a long way toward filling the leadership void Romo left. Prescott will fill some of that space, too. But Bryant being a cheerleader for the direction the team is taking means more right now.
As he said Wednesday, “Just [to] keep getting close, close, close … how can it not motivate you? I’ve never been afraid of failure. I’ve never been. I look at it as at least I tried. At least I attempted. I know that I worked hard and [asked] how can I get better? I’m ready for the next challenge. I think a lot of these guys have that same mentality.”
They better. If this is the best team Bryant has ever been a part of, they’re going to have a lot to prove in September.