When it comes to sideline discussions, appearances can be deceiving. (Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
NFL players have learned that very little they do on the field isn't mic'd up. And in the case of Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant, that may help his case a great deal. Bryant engaged in two animated discussions on the sideline during Dallas' 31-30 loss to the Detroit Lions Sunday, and many believed that Bryant was either trashing the overall playcalling, or insisting that he should get the ball more.
Not quite. When NFL Films released the audio of Bryant's first sideline discussion, it became clear that the receiver was trying to get on the same page with quarterback Tony Romo -- he was just doing it in a very emotional fashion.
The outburst happened after Romo threw an incomplete pass to Dwayne Harris on third down, leaving the Cowboys with the option to kick a field goal instead. That's where the audio came in.
Bryant slammed his helmet to the ground, and instead of attacking anyone directly with his words, he told teammates and coaches that the Cowboys should have scored on that drive. He then went to talk to Romo about the fact that he wasn't targeted on the play. Romo and receivers coach Derek Dooley talked with Bryant about the mechanics of the play, and why he wasn't targeted.
"We good at that, Tony -- we the best in the NFL on that!" Bryant said, insisting that he would be open on the play.
"What you've got to do is to set it down," Romo replied, telling Bryant (it would appear) that Bryant needed to be somewhere else as a target on that play.
And that's a legitimate concern -- for all his talent on the field, Bryant will take liberties with routes that frequently leave him out of the action. It's the inevitable downside of his athletic improvisation, and it bit him in this case. But he was not going after anybody in a destructive fashion.
We don't yet know what happened on the second sideline incident, when Bryant and tight end Jason Witten had to be separated by injured defensive end DeMarcus Ware, but it's also important to note that soon before Bryant "lost it" following that third-down play, Witten was seen expressing his own frustration.
So, it would seem that when Bryant's coaches and teammates defended him after the game, it wasn't just a cover-up for something systemically wrong with the Cowboys franchise.
“I’m sure you have seen him get emotional, which happens every game," Romo said. "He’s a competitive guy. He’s never complained to me about getting the ball. He knows that the ball's going to where it’s supposed to. He knows that. When you guys sometimes see emotions from Dez, it’s just trying to ‘rah, rah’ more than it is being a ‘me’ guy. That’s not who Dez is. I think that would be completely out of character for him if there was ever a ‘me’ situation. He does a great job. Sometimes he gets emotional just about, ‘Come on guys, come on, we’re better than this.’ Things like that, really emotionally. He’s never a self-first guy.”
The tape would seem to back that up, as it backs up Bryant's assertion that he was trying to motivate in his own way -- through that way could use a bit of refinement.
"My passion is always positive," Bryant said. "It's always positive. It's going to remain the same way. I'm not saying anything wrong. I'm not saying anything bad. It's all positive. That's just what it is.
"I'm the nicest person off the field. When I'm on the field, even when I look angry, it's still all good passion. It's all good passion. I feel like that's what we need. I'm going to remain the same way. I feel like I love this game. I love it. In order to win, you've got to be passionate about this game. You have to be. You've got to let that dog come out and just put it all out there on the line."
Former Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin, who had a similar way of motivating VERY loudly on the sideline during his career -- something his teammates respected because he backed up the volume on the field -- was discounted by many when he spoke about it on the NFL Network because he has a habit of defending diva receivers (hello, Terrell Owens) to a fault. But upon further review, Irvin had a point.
“I talked people in Dez’s camp and people with the Cowboys’ camp and the way they see this is, it is passion on the sideline. Guys are telling me that [Bryant and Romo] were embracing on the bus ride and going to the plane talking about it. [People on the bus were] talking to Dez about it, [saying] ‘We don’t have any problem with it. We just want to make sure that the passion is directed in the right way.’ You have to know how to address that kind of passion.”
As Irvin concluded, “I would much rather hold you back than have to push you out.”
The challenge for the Cowboys is to find a middle ground with Bryant. Much was assumed because of Bryant's youth and his off-field history, and those assumptions were incorrect. but team leadership is a fine balance, and Bryant is still learning his way.
Hopefully, those who jumped to conclusions in this case (including, it should be said, yours truly), will learn something from this as well.