It is, perhaps, the strangest moment of a career arc for certain star NFL players.
One day, with the season winding down, you are no longer preparing for a Pro Bowl or playoff game. You are no longer peppered with questions about a lucrative offseason contract. You are no longer penciled in as a key contributor for the next season.
Like Dez Bryant on Wednesday, you are asked a version of this startling question: You’re on the books for an awful lot of money. You think you might need to take a pay cut?
"I haven't heard no talks about that, but if it comes—well, I don't know," Bryant told reporters.
He added: "Probably not. Hell, no, man. I believe in me."
To see Bryant, who will have the team’s second-largest cap number ($16,500,000) next season behind only Tyron Smith, defend himself so awkwardly was uncomfortable. He was sheepishly blaming “certain situations that I couldn’t control” while staring down from the cameras. He talked about how he felt he was running routes better than “this person” but simply wasn’t getting the opportunities.
“I’m Dez Bryant baby, all day. It’s just, you know, it is what it is.”
That last line—perfectly tailored for an aging prizefighter taking pictures with fans at a trade show—was a particular gut punch. This is Dez Bryant, the dominant wide receiver who petrified cornerbacks in single coverage. This is the same unstoppable force in corner end zone jump balls. What is Dez Bryant now?
With one game remaining in the 2017 season, Bryant has 66 catches on 124 targets for six touchdowns. The touchdown total is the second lowest of his career. The yards per catch are the lowest and the catch percentage is his third lowest. With a sweeping, powerful running game taking hold in Dallas, he has the looks of a player who was merely caught in the transitional phase. Bryant certainly believes the acrobatic, powerful version of himself is out there somewhere.
But for the first time, it feels like Bryant is wrestling with how much of that player is left. Fans and reporters have started doing it long ago. For now, Bryant is maintaining the façade of a person he once was. It’s much easier than looking at the downside of his career arc to come.
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1. Eli Apple was suspended after telling reporters that he needed to use the bathroom instead of commenting on Landon Collins calling him a locker room cancer. Meanwhile, Collins apologized to Apple and Giants interim coach Steve Spagnuolo. What a tangled web they weave in East Rutherford.
2. Mike Mularkey doesn't seem to be concerned about Black Monday with the Titans on the playoff fence.
3. Sam Darnold says he'd be honored to play for any NFL team, rolling Josh Rosen under the bus.
4. Browns coach Hue Jackson now has to jump into Lake Erie, as if coaching in Cleveland was not difficult enough.
5. Pro Football Focus takes a look at the star-studded Cotton Bowl (USC-OSU) from an NFL perspective. Big-time quarterbacks, position players and offensive linemen will be on display.
6. Colts coach Chuck Pagano says Sunday is the team's "last rodeo." Will it be his as well?
7. If you were making your first NFL head start, who would you tell first? Patrick Mahomes picked mom.
8. Sean McVay has completed his first season as a totally cool dude, culminating in the ultimate cool guy move of benching your best players for a meaningless season finale.
9. Jared Goff, Carson Wentz and Jimmy Garoppolo are good! The NFL is back from the dead!
10. A swift kick in the fanny by Packers beat reporter Tom Silverstein to Packer management for not getting more active in free agency.
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A genuinely heart-warming moment between Mark Sanchez and the Bears rookie he's mentoring. Also, a great Jon Gruden impression.
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