There are plenty of big stories for the Dallas Cowboys going into their Week 13 matchup with the Baltimore Ravens. The team is still in the race for the NFC East title, players are fighting to validate their contracts or earn new ones, and some new coaches may already be close to losing their jobs. But for many, the biggest story of this rare Tuesday night game will be the happenstance reunion with former Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant.
It almost feels like going to an event when you know your ex-girlfriend/boyfriend is going to be there. Normally we want to look our absolute best in this situation. But the Cowboys, like most Americans, are not living their best life in 2020.
In fact, some might argue the franchise is even worse off now than when we broke up with Dez.
The Cowboys released Bryant following the 2017 season to clear cap space and perhaps some of the air in the locker room as well. There have always been conflicting messages about Dez' relationships with coaches and teammates, and at the very least it seemed he was struggling with his declining effectiveness and usage in the offense.
Bryant has sent his own mixed signals about his feelings towards the Cowboys since the breakup. Occasionally he stills sounds like a fan and even a teammate with his social media activity and other times he's taken hard shots at certain individuals like Jason Garrett and Sean Lee.
The man known for “throwing up the X” has seemed like a confused bitter ex, unable to process why the relationship had to end.
The Cowboys' decision to move on from Dez made sense when it happened. And ironically, they go into tonight's game with wide receiver as one of the few areas of the team that it's in better shape now than it was three years ago.
Overall, though, Dallas has struggled to upgrade its roster and is now watching its once-reliable parts decline from age, injury, and other regression issues. They're limping into tonight's game with uncertainty at nearly every level of the organization.
Just think where the Cowboys were following the 2017 season. It was hardly a good year thanks to the NFL's horrific handling of the domestic violence accusation against Ezekiel Elliott. But still, Dallas finished 9-7 and had ample optimism for the future.
Jaylon Smith had made a strong comeback after missing all of 2016 with his major knee injury from college. The arrow was pointing up for his third season.
David Irving had broken out with seven sacks in 2017 and was looking like a potential superstar on the defensive line. DeMarcus Lawrence had also had his best year with 14.5 sacks; the pair of them were supposed to become a fearsome twosome for years to come.
Most of us still weren't sure how to spell or pronounce Guillain-Barre syndrome. Travis Frederick was still our elite center with many good years left in the NFL. Tyron Smith was only missing a few games a year and we didn't even know how good a right tackle La'el Collins was about to become.
Oh, and we still had two years left on Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott's rookie contracts.
The Cowboys were poised for bigger and better things going into 2018. Jason Garrett had led the team to two division titles and narrow playoff losses in the last few years and seemed to be on the verge of a breakthrough.
For whatever reasons the Cowboys concluded that Dez Bryant wasn't going to help them take that next step. They released him in April of the 2018 offseason.
But other than a last gasp of playoff success that year with their first-round win over Seattle the Cowboys have hardly progressed from where things were following the 2017 season. They're questioning the future of those once promising young stars, lost others to free agency, are seeing the offensive line crumble, and are about to watch perhaps the entire 2017 draft class wash out.
Time hasn't been kind to Bryant, either. He couldn't find an offer he liked during that 2018 offseason and ended up sitting in free agency until November. Dez signed a minimal deal with the New Orleans Saints and then tore his Achilles two days later in practice. He would go unsigned in 2019 and only now, back in late October, did he finally find NFL work again with Baltimore.
So far in three games Bryant has just four catches for 28 yards on seven targets. He's not exactly strutting into tonight's game himself.
Going back to our original analogy, imagine those exes seeing each other across the room. As they size each other up, there's almost that immediate competitive thought of who's living better since the breakup.
Sure, the Cowboys have a hot new #88 on their arm in CeeDee Lamb. But life's been hard on them otherwise and the damage is clear to see.
Dez also has someone new and seems happy enough, but you know he longs for the days when he lived in the endzone and wore The Star on his helmet. The Cowboys will always be his greatest love.
So yeah, tonight's game will be interesting for plenty of reasons. But like some other guest at our make-believe party, part of me will be sad seeing the Cowboys and Dez Bryant in the same room again.
It's a reminder of what was and what could've been; happier times for everyone involved.