When Cowboys’ running back Ezekiel Elliott was finally forced to serve his six-game suspension for domestic violence, the logical assumption was that quarterback Dak Prescott would lean more heavily on the third member of the Dallas troika, star receiver Dez Bryant. But the Cowboys offense has floundered in the ensuing three weeks, and one of the reasons is becoming obvious: Bryant has fallen into an abyss so deep that he’s not merely no longer great, he has actually become one of the least efficient wide receivers in football.
The most disconcerting thing about Bryant’s precipitous drop in production is that it’s not because he’s not getting opportunities. The Cowboys and NFL sophomore Prescott are throwing Bryant the ball — peppering him with 103 targets, the sixth-highest number in the league according to ESPN TruMedia.
This high volume of looks would make good sense if Bryant were the offensive force we last saw for extended stretches way back in 2014, when Tony Romo was his quarterback. But the former All-Pro wide receiver has not been the same since he broke his foot in 2015. His horrible inefficiency that year was attributed to his coming back too soon and then playing without Romo, who was injured, and instead getting targets from one of the most inept casts of backup quarterbacks ever assembled. His 2016 season was supposed to be an awakening. But even with hyper-efficient Prescott at the controls, Bryant was nowhere near peak form. He hauled in 52.1 percent of his targets compared with 62.6 percent through 2014. And he converted just 57 percent of all the air yards on passes thrown to him into actual receiving yards, versus 74.6 percent prior to his injury.
Still, Bryant flashed enough brilliance late in the year and in the postseason to lead Cowboys fans to think they were heading into this season with a legitimate weapon. Instead, Bryant is among the lowest-rated receivers in key efficiency metrics like catch rate (73rd out of 78 qualifying wide receivers with at least two catches per team game), receiving yards per target (75th), and receiving yards as a percentage of air yards (72nd).1 Here’s every wide receiver with 22 or more receptions this season, broken up by targets and receiving yards.
Most damningly, Prescott’s passer rating collapses when he targets Bryant — the opposite of what is supposed to happen with a No. 1 wide receiver. When throwing to Bryant, Prescott is 53-for-103 for 578 yards, with four TDs and three picks. That’s a 69.2 rating, which would rank 35th in the NFL, between C.J. Beathard and Tom Savage.
In Elliott’s absence, things have gotten even worse. Prescott has a 54.4 rating when throwing to Bryant, and Dallas has scored just 22 combined points in three straight losses — the first team to score fewer than 10 points in each of three straight games since the 2009 Browns.
Bryant, an elite deep-ball weapon in his prime, is now completely useless downfield, with just one reception on a pass thrown over 20 yards from scrimmage all year. Between 2012 and 2014, he averaged nearly 10 such grabs per season (29 total). It’s not like he’s wide open on short passes either. That was never more apparent than it was on Thanksgiving, when Bryant’s 0.8 yards of separation on targets was lowest among all wideouts who got at least five targets, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats.
While Bryant just turned 29 in November, he has not only endured injury but also taken constant punishment as one of the game’s most physical receivers. He has been one of the league’s most vocal receivers about getting his share of volume, so if Prescott does start looking to his other targets more frequently, there’s no doubt that he will hear about. But it may be worth it: On all non-Bryant passes, Prescott’s rating of 95.3 is well above the NFL average.