When the Dallas Cowboys, who have no true number one receiver without Dez Bryant, release him anyway, it doesn’t send a confidence-inspiring message to the rest of the NFL and potential suitors. This, combined with decreased production over the past three seasons, adds to the narrative that Bryant has lost a step and is running routes poorly.

It also doesn’t help with what the Cowboys vice president of player personnel, Will McClay, said. According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram the decision to release Bryant was based on "The (inability) to win one-on-one, to win downfield. There was inconsistency as well as some huge things in his play.

So what's best moving forward for Dez Bryant [and] the Cowboys, we just made that decision. It's a production-based business."

Yet Stephen Jones, the Executive Vice President, CEO, and Director of Player Personnel for the Dallas Cowboys, still expressed surprise this week that Bryant remained unsigned. Considering the negative rumors that seem to flow out of the Dallas Cowboy’s facility regarding locker room disruption, attitude issues, reduced ability and work ethic, combined with how long the Cowboys took to release Bryant (causing him to miss the height of the free agency period on the verge of 2018 NFL Draft), it’s hard to believe this surprise is genuine. Much of the media reporting on Bryant has seemingly done everything possible to make him unattractive to other NFL teams.

Interest and rumor

So far, only the Baltimore Ravens have shown interest, but Bryant declined an offer estimated in the ballpark of three years and $21 million.

Apart from this one offer, the silence has been deafening, and even rumors have been minimal and speculative in nature. Bryant himself set off rumors when he answered a fan on social media stating he’d like to play for the 49ers [VIDEO], which he quickly deleted afterward. However, it seems that San Francisco does not share that interest, and even a twitter poll dismissed the idea.

Tom Pelissero of NFL Media, in shooting down any likelihood that the 49ers would be interested in Bryant, said in a report on Tuesday, "I asked one high-ranking scout today to break down Dez Bryant at this point, just as a Football player,”…”What he said at this point, he’s a physical possession type of receiver. He does not scare you in terms of his speed as a vertical threat. He’s still going to compete for 50/50 balls, but he’s not going to win them as consistent as he used to. So if Dez Bryant is out there thinking he’s going to get something similar in money to the last contract he had, he’s probably going to be sitting out there a lot longer."

This kind of criticism has been a common theme and one source mirrors many others, essentially beginning to feel like a pile-on.

But does the message deserve more weight because of the volume?

His release from the Cowboys, how it was handled, the timing, and the subsequent criticisms have potentially created a very large chip on Bryant’s shoulder (he had previously stated he wanted to sign with an NFC East team [VIDEO], competing directly with Dallas for a division crown and playing them twice a year). Bryant wants to prove himself, but he needs to forget about revenge and just focus on finding the right team. He has indicated he’d like a one year deal so he can prove he is still an elite receiver who can command a long-term, top-dollar contract. At the very least, Bryant certainly hasn't lost his confidence or determination.

So where does this leave Bryant?

Is his demise true, or has it been greatly exaggerated? The real fear here is whether Bryant will get the chance to settle the matter on the field. His situation seems reminiscent of Terrell Owens late in his career when he insisted he could still play, but found no willing suitors to give him the chance. This was despite coming off a 72 reception, 983 yards, 9 TD effort as the leading receiver for Cincinnati in his final season.

The difference here is that T.O. was 38 years old at the time, unlike Bryant who just turned 29 in November. Dez has played eight seasons compared to T.O.’s 15. This means, to buy the argument that Bryant’s lack of production over the past three seasons is because he lost a step after the 2014 season, has to take into account that he is only 29 years old, and therefore the implication that his lost step came at the age of 26.

It should also be noted that Antonio Brown and Julio Jones are both the same age as Dez. Does anyone think those two have shown signs of slowing over the past three seasons? If anything, both have solidified themselves as possibly the two best receivers in the game today over that time frame.

Criticism; true or false?

As to criticism of Dez as a teammate, Tony Romo recently came to his defense, "There's a ton of teams he could help," Romo said, via espn.com. "One thing, I don't know how many teams will do their homework on it, but Dez is a good teammate and I think sometimes that might get lost in the way that the emotional aspect of things. If I was talking to any of the GMs or coaches, I would tell them he's not going to hurt the locker room in any possible way. He's going to come out and he'll be a great teammate when he gets there."

Then there is the criticism of his route running. Watching film of all route types, there is certainly film evidence to show that Dez is still separating from the top defenders in the league, cherry-picking aside. Bryant’s 2017 incompletion reel is a showcase, in large measure, of inaccurate throws, late throws, and misreads. Many times Dez is breaking free on one side of the field, while his quarterback is only reading the opposite side, or hesitant in releasing the ball, resulting in late throws, or throws that should have been made but held instead.

It’s a highlight of the type of play consistent with what one might expect from a second-year inexperienced quarterback, and not reflective of Dez as a receiver. In other words, Dez has been blamed for what in effect is largely Dak Prescott’s inexperience, particularly Prescott’s drop-off in his sophomore season which impacted every receiver on the Dallas roster and not just Dez.

Are the Cowboys deflecting for Prescott?

The Cowboys have shielded Prescott since making him the starter. Back in 2016, despite Tony Romo being healthy and ready to play again after mid-season, he wasn’t allowed to compete to regain his starting role. When the Cowboys literally ran out of plausible excuses to deny Romo game time and did play him briefly on the final game of the 2016 season, having clinched the playoffs, Romo orchestrated a drive straight down the field for a touchdown and the Cowboys couldn’t bench him fast enough. They opted to play the third string quarterback (Mark Sanchez) the rest of the way.

Whether they wanted to avoid a controversy at all costs late in the season, or they felt they needed to protect Prescott’s confidence level to the extreme, Dallas chose to enter the 2017 playoffs with a rookie quarterback. The result was another one-and-done, and the Cowboys might have squandered their best chance this decade at a Super Bowl by neglecting to even put Romo on the field late in the season to see what he could do. So much for the notion that the NFL is a meritocracy and Will McClay’s claim that “it’s a production-based business.” For the Cowboys and their fans, it will forever remain a case of “what might have been”.

No one paid a bigger price than Dez

As the Dallas offense went from one of the most feared aerial attacks in football to a ball-control ground attack, the Cowboys NFL passer ranking tumbled. They haven’t finished better than 23rd in the NFL for the past three seasons when they had finished no worse than 16th in the prior three years—finishing as high as third in 2012.

The fact that claims of Dez losing a step literally track to the very day, minute, and instant that Tony Romo hit the turf in Philadelphia with another broken clavicle, marking the final start of his career, gets seemingly lost on all the prognosticators, analysts, and critics. It shouldn’t. Bryant has always been a vertical threat; a player that stretches the field and defenses. The trouble with the Cowboys since Romo's exit has been that they no longer have the quarterback play to consistently attack defenses in the vertical game.

Tony Romo's assessment of Dez

As to Dez’s ability, in a ‘Then And Now’ podcast with Cowboys radio play-by-play voice Brad Sham, Romo described Dez in this way: "Dez's rare trait was over his head. I've never really seen another guy, maybe Calvin Johnson, but I've never really seen a guy be able to do the things he does. He still has that capability. Dez is never actually covered even when he's covered. That's a rare trait. If he was singled up, if you could put the ball in a certain spot, he could always get it. There's not really another guy that I ever played with who could do that.” [Note: that list includes Terrell Owens, Joey Galloway, Terry Glenn, and Keyshawn Johnson].

“It kind of simplified the offense a little bit in a sense. If Dez was kind of by himself, you'd just throw 15-20 yards above his head, three yards and however you want to guard him it doesn't matter. You can't go get that ball, he can. I worked hard with him at that because that throw requires timing, precision, you gotta throw it hard, but then when you get it, it moves the chains pretty quickly.”

Romo’s last sentence highlights the crucial element and overriding factor in Bryant’s three-year drop off in performance. With all the high hopes of Prescott transitioning into the Cowboy’s franchise quarterback (and fans are certainly rooting for Prescott as a top-notch character guy with a tremendous attitude and work ethic), this doesn’t take away from the simple fact that where Dez thrives, Dak has struggled. Romo’s three keys were timing, precision, and throwing the ball hard. Dak has a strong arm, but the first two have been highly inconsistent.

Dez needs the right team

To that end, Bryant needs to look for a team with an offense that can fully utilize his skill, and the corollary to that is finding a veteran quarterback that has the experience and ability to maximize the potential of Bryant’s unique combination of speed, power, and size. If he gets paired with an Aaron Rogers or a Drew Brees, he likely leads the NFL in receiving in 2018.

Dez is a top ten receiver in the NFL if he’s on the field and healthy, but suddenly this appears to be a big “if.” If every team in the NFL buys into the rumors and bad analysis of Bryant’s 2018 capability, then NFL fans are going to be short-changed on witnessing the entertainment and phenomenal ability of one of the most highly-skilled receivers the NFL has seen over the last decade. And if this happens, then sadly, Tony Romo’s career-ending injury might just turn out to be Dez Bryant’s as well.