Today, Jerry Jones stated that he wants Dez Bryant to return punts this season:
“I have no issue with us making business decisions relative to him returning punts,” Jones said. “What I do want him to do is to get enough repetitions so he can have a sense of fielding them and when to field them and when not to field them and make those kinds of judgments, but I like him back there to use him when we’ve got a long field or a chance for a return.”
Brandon George of the Dallas Morning News laid out a number of reasons why the Cowboys should perhaps reconsider, and they all make plenty of sense. I’ll paraphrase them here:
- Bryant suffered a deep thigh bruise on a punt return Week 1 vs the Jets, and missed the following game in San Francisco.
- The Cowboys have crappy depth at WR.
- Bryant didn’t have an impressive season in 2011 anyway. He averaged only 6.9 yards per return (on 15 returns) and his long was just 20 yards.
I see it somewhat differently:
1. For one, punt returns are not kick returns, and although I’m not accusing George of being guilty of this, I think that sometimes the two are lumped together as being dangerous. Kick returns are brutal. On kick returns, you have 10 players running full speed down the field, as the returner runs full speed head on at them. It looks a lot like the fight scenes in Braveheart, where the English and Scottish forces charge at one another from a across a field at full speed. If I’m the Cowboys, no way do I want Dez Bryant returning kicks, like he did his rookie season when he broke his leg.
Punt returns are completely different. For starters, it’s sheer numbers. At the snap on a punt, typically only the gunners release downfield, with the personnel on the line either having blocking assignments, or ineligible to run downfield until the punt is away. This creates much more of a “broken field” for the returner. If the punter is able to put good hangtime on his kick and the gunners are in a position to make a play, Bryant can simply call for a fair catch. In situations where nothing is there, Bryant can simply try to get to the sidelines or just go down. The risk of bodily harm is far less on punt returns in comparison to kick returns.
Furthermore, because players along the line on the punt protection team are also trying to keep the return team from getting a free run at the punter, they have blocking responsibilities. To ensure that the return team doesn’t just run right over your line to get to the punter, teams are forced are trade speed for some bulk along the line. As a result, you have a mix of linebackers, tight ends, fullbacks, etc that are trying to track down a speedy guy like Bryant, which is a complete mismatch.
2. As George noted, Bryant only had 6.9 yards per punt return on 15 chances last season anyway. While that’s a fair point, it should also be noted that Bryant also had 15 returns in 2010, but he averaged 14.3 per return that year. It appears that the #2 guy behind Bryant on the punt returner depth chart is Dwayne Harris. Dwayne Harris cannot do this:
The point that I can’t rebut is that the Cowboys have crappy depth at WR, and that’s obviously the risk. If Bryant goes down, you have a pretty weak player starting at WR for you, at least as the roster currently stands. So I certainly understand the fear.
But that’s a risk I’d be willing to take. If the Cowboys were looking like a juggernaut that was going to win games regardless of punt return production, I’d be more inclined to be cautious with Bryant. But the Cowboys are an average team, in my opinion, and a huge punt return could theoretically be the difference between a playoff berth and playing golf in January. Just ask Matt Dodge. I do know one thing is for sure – opposing teams would be thrilled to be Dwayne Harris or (fill in the blank of another totally nonthreatening name) instead of Dez Bryant.