Ravens' Dez Bryant downplayed any lingering animosity between him and the Cowboys, calling it “water under the bridge.”
The news might have been a bit buried underneath the rising coronavirus numbers in the Ravens’ organization, but it was the news wide receiver Dez Bryant had been waiting for. Ravens coach John Harbaugh called Bryant in the early morning on Nov. 28 to tell him he was being signed to the 53-man roster after a month on the practice squad.
By noon, Bryant had posted a picture of him and the signed contract, the ultimate validation for a player who tirelessly worked to return to the NFL.
On Tuesday night, Bryant for the first time will face the Dallas Cowboys, the team who drafted him and with whom he spent his first eight seasons, becoming the franchise’s all-time leader in touchdown catches before a somewhat messy divorce after the 2017 season.
In his first video conference call with reporters since signing with the Ravens, Bryant downplayed any lingering animosity between him and the organization, calling it “water under the bridge.” He thanked Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, with whom he developed a strong personal relationship, and said the matchup with his former team is “going to be an exciting moment.”
Jones exchanged similar pleasantries earlier in the week, saying during a radio interview with 105.3 The Fan in Dallas that Bryant was “an eternal light of positiveness for our game.”
“It’s cool; it’s kind of cool. I’m excited,” Bryant said Saturday. “I’m looking forward to it. A lot of those guys on the team I know; I’m real good friends with. [They’re] hell of a [good] football players. Whenever we line up across from one another, I think it’s going to be fun. Like I said, it’s going to be an exciting moment.”
In a sense, Bryant’s pairing with the Ravens has been years in the making. The team reportedly offered Bryant a multiyear contract after his release from the Cowboys, but he declined it in search of a more lucrative one-year deal.
Nine weeks into the 2018 season, Bryant signed a one-year deal with the New Orleans Saints. Just two days after joining his new team, Bryant tore his Achilles tendon while running a route in his second practice.
Bryant, 30 at the time of his injury, was sent on an arduous rehabilitation for an injury that is notorious for sapping even the most explosive athletes of their peak athleticism.
David Robinson, Bryant’s trainer, said surgery kept Bryant initially sidelined for about four to six months. By the time he returned for training in hopes of getting back to the league, Bryant was “overweight” and “kind of gimpy, running with a limp.”
“We really had to build a lot of his confidence,” said Robinson, a Dallas-based specialist who connected with Bryant through former Cowboys teammate Brice Butler. (Robinson also has trained Ravens wide receivers Marquise Brown, Devin Duvernay and James Proche II.)
Robinson said it took anywhere from six months to a year to get Bryant to push off his foot without any hesitancy. And once Bryant could trust his body, Robinson moved on to reshaping his skill set.
In eight years with Dallas, Bryant was known for using his big frame to secure catches on fade routes, back-shoulder passes and slant patterns. Years removed from his athletic prime, Robinson worked on Bryant’s footwork and his arms coming out of breaks so he could become a more concise route-runner and as a result, a more well-rounded receiver.
“I just applaud him for sticking with it, because it was frustrating,” Robinson said. “Sometimes he would take off and be like, ‘Man, I think I’m going to be done with football’ and have those little moments where he wasn’t really feeling himself.”
Bryant credited his daughter, Isabella Rose, for giving him the inspiration to continue on the road back.
“My daughter kept asking me [if I] was going to play football, and I just ignored the question,” Bryant said. “I was like, ‘You know what, baby? I’m going to give it a go.’ I started training. I started working out every day. I got myself to a point to where I felt like I could get back out there.”
The Ravens brought Bryant in for a workout in August, just as the team opened training camp, but Bryant left Baltimore without a contract as the team wanted him to get in better shape.
Two months later, Bryant returned to the team’s Owings Mills facility and aced his second workout. Robinson said that owner Steve Bisciotti even remarked in the middle of the workout that Bryant was looking like “the Dez Bryant from 2016.”
In a relatively young offensive room, particularly among receivers, Bryant, 32, has quickly become an elder statesman.
Many of Bryant’s teammates, still in high school at the time, watched from afar as he began a streak of three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons in 2012, and they’ve been complimentary of the professionalism shown from a player who had become a polarizing figure in Dallas.
Quarterback Trace McSorley, who could be throwing to Bryant in his first career start Tuesday, said “the competition kind of turned up once he stepped in the building.”
“He’s just on a mission to prove everybody that he’s still Dez Bryant,” Robinson said. “To prove the people that said he would never play again wrong. To prove to people who said he’s not a locker room guy, things of that nature. Just prove all the naysayers and all the negative stuff that was written about him in Dallas, just prove that wrong. Of course, every player wants to win a Super Bowl, he wants to win a Super Bowl. His main goal is to help the Baltimore Ravens win … But he knows what he can do on a football field.”
With a pivotal five-game stretch remaining for the Ravens, it’s still unclear how much Bryant can help a struggling passing offense. Harbaugh and Roman have tempered expectations for Bryant, who has just four catches for 28 yards in three games. But Bryant has been quickly integrated into the offense, playing a combined 67 snaps in the last two games.
So will we see Bryant once again throw up his famous “X” touchdown celebration? That’s to be determined but Tuesday night would be a fitting time for it to reappear.
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“I feel good physically,” Bryant said. “I think the coaches, they’re doing what they feel is best for me because sometimes I think I can bite off more than I can chew. But whatever they have for me, I’m going to be prepared for it. I’m excited. I’m going to let the coaches do what they feel is best, and I’m just going to follow their lead.”