The notion of replacing Dez Bryant is, in itself, an oxymoron.
On one hand, in the NFL, nearly any player — particularly any non-quarterback — is at least somewhat replaceable. The history of the league is filled with backups or unknowns who became competent starters, or better, upon receiving more snaps in a system befitting their skill sets. In direct contrast, the idea that any one player could adequately replace a human freakazoid as dynamic as Bryant is silly.
At 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds, Bryant is a monster to behold, let alone defend. He can run with or past any corner and his ability to win at the catch point makes him a threat anywhere on the field. Bryant is particularly dangerous in the red zone, where the big-bodied All-Pro is so dominant, the New York Giants resorted to simply grabbing Bryant and trying to pull him to the turf on one play. Simply put, Bryant is one of the three best wide receivers in the entire league and the idea of any one Dallas Cowboys wideout, running back or tight end “replacing” him is highly unlikely, in the purest sense of the word.
Barring a Chris Borland-like breakout from second-year wideout Devin Street, the Cowboys’ best plan of action is to lessen the sting of Bryant’s absence by getting creative with several offensive options while relying heavily on their two best assets – the offensive line and quarterback Tony Romo.
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The Cowboys’ work begins up front, where they have invested a significant number of resources in recent years. Left tackle Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick and right guard Zack Martin carry first-round pedigrees and NFL résumés to match. In Smith, the Cowboys possess the game’s best left tackle, a mauler in the run game and an athletic monster in pass protection. Frederick is the game’s best run-blocking center and Martin seamlessly transitioned from collegiate tackle to NFL guard as a rookie. The five-man unit is filled out by right tackle Doug Free and left guard Ronald Leary, with lottery talent La’el Collins waiting in the wings, likely for Leary.
In Sunday night’s opener against the overmatched Giants, Smith and Co. performed well. Romo was rushed only a handful of times and on the game-winning drive he operated from a mostly empty pocket. The group also consistently opened up holes for Dallas’ running back committee, although neither Joseph Randle nor Darren McFadden looked particularly adept at exploiting them. With Bryant out of the picture, defenses will focus their attention on the line and the run game, devoting an extra body to the box instead of worrying about Bryant beating them down the field.
To counter this, the Cowboys would be wise to limit their middling ground game and instead focus their offense around a rhythmic passing attack that makes use of pick rub plays and personnel mismatches. This will help Dallas create space for its limited receivers, while stretching and tiring defenses over the course of a game.
It was the same formula the Cowboys used during their two best drives Sunday night — a six-play, 76-yard fourth-quarter drive that lasted 2:53 and the game-winning, six-play, 72-yard drive which took all of 87 seconds. Both occurred after Bryant had exited for the night and featured almost exclusively three-wide-receiver sets along with tight end Jason Witten moving around the formation and running back Lance Dunbar next to Romo in the shotgun. Romo hit on 11 of 12 passes, with Dunbar, Witten and wideouts Cole Beasley and Terrance Williams each seeing at least two targets.
While none of the aforementioned foursome possesses the individual ability to beat defensive backs and coverages by themselves, together they offer a diverse grouping of skill sets for offensive coordinator Scott Linehan to arrange on the field. In Beasley, the Cowboys possess a receiver limited by his size but with enough quickness and after-the-catch ability to become a solid counterpoint in the slot to Williams’ size and long speed on the outside. Witten, meanwhile, remains Romo’s trusted safety valve on option routes and up the seam, despite running with the swiftness of a wounded cow these days.
The most interesting piece may be Dunbar, who didn’t receive a single carry but received eight targets Sunday night and even lined up out wide at times. A back with good vision and balance and reliable hands, Dunbar, not Randle, saw all the snaps on those final two drives against New York. While it’s always risky to extrapolate impact from Week 1, it seems likely Dunbar will continue to be a consistent part of the passing game, and his ability to line up across the formation could give Linehan and Romo an intriguing chess piece with which to play.
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No matter how creative Linehan gets, the majority of Bryant’s absence will fall on Romo.
Coming off a career year in which he attempted just 435 passes, Romo was already going to be asked to do more after the departure of running back DeMarco Murray. On Sunday night alone, Romo attempted 45 passes, more than he did in any game last season. With Bryant sidelined, that number doesn’t figure to decrease as defenses load the box and wait for the Cowboys to prove they can consistently move the ball through the air.
The good news is Romo remains one of the game’s best passers in the short and intermediate areas. The question is whether the extra reps will cause him to lose velocity down the stretch or whether the extra hits that invariably come from attempting 35-plus passes per game will tweak his twice-surgically repaired back.
And if there’s one player the Cowboys absolutely can’t replace, it’s Romo.