Okay, so you know by now that Cowboys rookie wideout and glaring head case Dez Bryant busted his ankle during a kickoff return last week against Indianapolis. Bryant is done for the year, and now there’s some debate over whether or not he should have ever been back there to begin with. For his part, Dallas coach Jason Garrett defended using Bryant on returns to the Dallas Morning News:
"I think when you have a player like Dez Bryant, a big part of what his contribution is going to be and a big reason why we drafted him is because of his ability to return the football… Typically you don't want starting players playing too much special teams. Dez has a unique ability as a returner. We want to take full advantage of that. You never want to put guys in precarious positions, but that's a part of what he does.''
Indeed it is. Bryant had two punt returns for touchdowns this season, and he had a huge, potentially backbreaking return against the Colts that got called back. He’s an excellent returner, and it wasn’t as if the team had anything to lose this year by sticking him back there. He should be 100 percent by the time next season rolls around. And that is where the real debate begins: Should Dez ever return a kick or a punt again?
I’m fine with rookies returning punts and kicks, but once they’ve proven to be invaluable starters, it becomes more difficult to keep them out there. Especially, I’d argue, on kickoffs, where the returner can get really jacked up. Plenty of starting wideouts in the NFL double as punt returners, including DeSean Jackson and Percy Harvin. But Jackson doesn’t return kickoffs, which I think makes sense. The Eagles get some of Jackson’s explosive special teams capabilities but keep him healthy enough to still be an everydown wideout. Then again, you hardly see anyone in Minnesota complaining about Harvin handling kickoff duties, which he does extremely well.
I remember when Brad Childress was crucified in Minnesota for having Adrian Peterson return kickoffs during his rookie season. And I think the reason people were angry about it was because Peterson had already established himself as a vital offensive player (the Vikings’ only vital one at the time), and because he played running back, a position that already doles out its fair share of punishment. To me, it’s not quite as bad to have a starting wideout return kicks as it is having a starting running back return them.
There’s no doubt that Dez Bryant will have a much bigger role in the Cowboys offense next year. He was already well on his way to becoming one of the best in football this year before this injury. So when he gets back, Jason Garrett will have to think long and hard about sticking him back out there on kickoffs. If it were me, I’d split the difference, have him handle punts, and be done with it.