Commentary

Dez Bryant reminds of another No. 88

WR is dangerously close to following in Antonio Bryant's disappointing footsteps

Updated: October 19, 2011, 11:16 AM ET
By Tim MacMahon | ESPNDallas.com

IRVING, Texas -- So far, so much about Dez Bryant reminds of another receiver who wore No. 88 for the Dallas Cowboys.

They even have the same last name.

OK, Antonio Bryant wasn't exactly the guy Jerry Jones had in mind when he made a big production out of giving the team's 2010 first-round pick that famed jersey number. It was meant as a method of challenging Dez Bryant and emphasizing expectations that he would live up to the standard set by legendary Cowboys receivers Drew Pearson and Michael Irvin.

[+] EnlargeDez Bryant
AP Photo/Charles KrupaDez Bryant's productivity hasn't been bad with 11 touchdowns in his first 16 games in the NFL. But expectations are higher when you wear No. 88 for the Cowboys.
"They made this the next guy in line to take the double-8s to the next level," Pearson said. "That's what we expect."

Of course, expectations were also awfully high for Antonio Bryant, who posted the best rookie numbers of any of the Cowboys receivers to wear that number. And it took less than three years for the franchise to decide that his talent wasn't worth the trouble.

Not that the Cowboys are close to even considering cutting bait when it comes to the current No. 88. But the frustrating moments-to-flashes of brilliance ratio is high enough to question whether Dez Bryant will have a bright future or fail to fulfill all of that potential.

"He's been everything we expected him to be when we drafted him," Jones has said a handful of times this season. "That's both positive and negative."

Bryant's ability is undeniably awesome. Just watch the highlights of his 11 touchdowns in 16 career games for evidence.

The list of players in the league with the explosiveness displayed on the punt returns he took to the house is pretty short. So is the list of players who can have the strength, leaping ability and natural instincts Bryant has shown while scoring on jump-ball throws or back-shoulder fades. The list of active receivers with all of those attributes might be only one name long.

This is such a rare talent that Jones deemed it worth the risk to trade up to end the first-round freefall. The Cowboys decided they could live with the downside to get top-10 quality with the 24th overall pick despite being burned by a similar gamble on Antonio Bryant, a Biletnikoff Award winner whose character issues caused him to slide to the bottom of the 2002 second round.

Dez Bryant, Antonio Bryant
Getty ImagesAntonio Bryant (right) never lived up to expectations as a receiver for the Cowboys, who hope Dez Bryant won't fall into that same trap.
While Dez Bryant has a clean criminal record, he is guilty of chronic immaturity and irresponsibility. That has manifested itself in many ways during his brief pro career.

There haven't been any unforgivable incidents -- like, oh, throwing a sweaty jersey in the head coach's face on the practice field -- but Bryant's behavioral paper cuts have caused plenty of blood to be lost.

He racked up six figures worth of fines for being late to meetings and rehab sessions as a rookie, an issue he has improved but not eliminated this season. There was the well-publicized, silly run-in over sagging pants with off-duty police working as security at an upscale mall. He still hasn't settled one of his two six-figure debts for jewelry and tickets acquired before the draft. And on and on and on.

That immaturity is also evident in Bryant's game.

Head coach Jason Garrett praises Bryant's progress, pointing out that injuries have prevented him from getting much practice time as a pro. However, the lack of trust the coach and quarterback Tony Romo have developed in Bryant is apparent by his statistics in second halves.

In four games, Bryant has a grand total of two catches for 50 yards after halftime. One of those was a critical 31-yard gain against the Washington Redskins that came on a make-it-up-as-we-go-along route when Romo scrambled. Bryant was targeted only once in the second half of Sunday's loss to the New England Patriots, and that was a Hail Mary on the final snap.

What's the problem?

"Dez needs to concentrate," Jones said Tuesday on KRLD-FM. "Not being critical of him, but he needs to continue to concentrate on his route running because there's a reason for harping on running correct routes, even though you're a great receiver. And that is it gets you open."

The Original 88 agrees with Jones' assessment, although Pearson believes its way premature to label Bryant as great. Pearson, who went undrafted after playing quarterback in college and emerged as a star in his second NFL season, doesn't see progress from Bryant.

In his role as an analyst for ESPN 103.3 FM, Pearson often offers harsh, constructive criticism for Bryant. It frustrates Pearson that he doesn't get the chance to say those things to Bryant's face.

"The finer points of the position aren't coming to the forefront," said Pearson, whose long-overdue entrance to the Ring of Honor will become official during the Nov. 6 game against the Seattle Seahawks. "Route running, discipline of depth on his routes, adjustments, lining up to set up his pass routes. Just the little things. Too many chopped steps on his breaks, not enough separation from defensive backs. That's why he always has to fight for the ball."

Bryant's production hasn't been bad by any stretch. He has 59 catches for 810 yards and nine touchdowns, plus the two punt returns for scores, in his first 16 NFL games.

Bryant, however, is held to a higher standard due to his potential and the number on his back. He has a long way to go to approach the individual and team accomplishments of Pearson and Irvin.

But Dez Bryant is dangerously close to following Antonio Bryant's disappointing footsteps in Dallas.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.

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