It was not much of a catch, or of a play, just a quick little swing pass out left from Lamar Jackson for a pickup of four yards early in the third quarter. But it was a catch, which makes it simultaneously something we’ve seen hundreds of times before and something we doubted we’d ever see again. For the first time since New Year’s Eve 2017, Dez Bryant had an NFL reception.
Coming into 2015, Bryant was playing like the best receiver in the world, and had just signed a contract with the Cowboys commensurate with that honorific. It was a peak, and the next three years were a downslope ahead of a cliff. Bryant saw declining numbers and injuries to his foot, ankle, and knee, and clashed with coaches and management about what he at one point called “garbage ass play calling.” When Dallas released him after the 2017 season, he was still just 29 years old, and presumably had many more catches left in him.
It wasn’t to be, at least not for a long while. Bryant went unsigned for the entire offseason and for nine weeks into the season, amid reports that teams were scared off by his attitude or his contract demands or feared that the ultra-athletic receiver had lost a step. When he finally signed, it was on a low-money, prove-it deal with the Saints, a team on which receivers do in fact tend to prove it. Bryant never suited up for New Orleans. Just two days after his signing, he tore his Achilles tendon in practice.
You figured it was over then. But Bryant declined to retire in 2019, and spent the whole year rehabbing. He stayed in shape this year, despite not getting any sniffs in the offseason. And then, at the end of October, Bryant signed to the Ravens’ practice squad. Maybe it wouldn’t amount to anything, or maybe it might—at the time of the signing, Baltimore’s wideouts ranked last in the league in receptions and yards. (Coming into today, that unit has improved to third-worst and second-worst.)
The Ravens called up Bryant for Week 9 against Indianapolis, but he played just two snaps and didn’t get targeted. Another opportunity opened up this weekend when quarterback Trace McSorley was placed on the COVID-19 reserve list, meaning Baltimore could sign Bryant without putting him on the active roster.
And if Bryant’s return to football hasn’t been in a starring role or had a movie ending, he also hasn’t embarrassed himself. In an overtime loss to the Titans on Sunday, Bryant caught four balls (second-most on the team) on five targets for a very humble 28 yards, including this very nice catch-and-run on a crucial drive to get the Ravens into range for a game-tying FG.
So Bryant may not have the speed or the leaping ability he had five years and multiple surgeries ago. He can still potentially be a physical, possession receiver for a star quarterback desperate for capable targets. John Harbaugh perhaps hinted at his intended usage by lining him up in red-zone situations, before he started vulturing Miles Boykin’s snaps in the second half today. No matter what happens, though, Dez Bryant caught another pass. And then three more. Now, however he goes out, it’ll be on something that better resembles his terms.