Let's all jump in our hot tub time machines and travel back to last spring when many of the Bengal faithful were clamoring for the team to draft Oklahoma State wide receiver Dez Bryant with the 21st pick in the 2010 NFL draft.The staff here at Cincy Jungle were no exception, selecting Bryant in the SB Nation mock draft over the safer pick of Oklahoma tight end Jermaine Gresham. There was certainly reason enough for fans to rally around the Bryant pick. He was largely considered the top receiving prospect in the draft, a top ten pick who might not burn past coverage but possessed the size to go above it and the elusiveness to run effectively after the catch.
But as the scouting for the draft wore on, questions about Bryant's character became more persistent. After being suspended by the NCAA for most of the 2009 season for lying about his training relationship with now Hall of Fame defensive back Deion Sanders, Bryant then chose to skip the NFL combine. After a disappointing private workout in which he forgot to bring his preferred footwear, his stock began to plummet, eventually dropping him to the Cowboys at pick No. 24 after the Bengals passed on him (Bryant wasn't even the first WR selected; Denver went with Demyrius Thomas two picks prior).
One year on, it looks like the Bengals dodged a behavioral bullet by going with Gresham. On Tuesday, Bryant was ejected from an upscale Dallas mall for a profanity-laced tirade against a mall security officer who accosted Bryant and three friends for committing aesthetic violence (reportedly the three men, not Bryant, were accused of wearing saggy pants which exposed their underwear). For his part, Bryant claims he "wasn't [...] in the wrong," but the incident has set off tremors across the NFL landscape and now Sanders is throwing up his hands over Bryant, claiming:
"He needs help. He needs help," Sanders said, citing issues stemming from Bryant's difficult childhood. "I told the Cowboys from Day One that he needs help. Matter of fact, they have a team in place to help him. But you cannot tell a grown man what to do."
For a team struggling to gain respectability and shed the label of being a crew of hooligans, malcontents, and loudmouths guided by an imbecile, not having Bryant around is a good thing for the Bengals right now.
Despite the growing concerns about Bryant's mental makeup in the days before the draft, many pundits still targeted Bryant as a top pick, calling fears about his risk-factor overblown. Bryant's "character issues" were even being mitigated by the likes of Mel Kiper and our skipper here at Cincy Jungle, who was a pretty spirited cheerleader for drafting Bryant:
I like the idea personally. I like the idea of our passing offense having a trio of threats at wide receiver, reminiscent of the days with Chad Ochocinco, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chris Henry. In fact, it makes me giddy [...] I'm giddy. Think of it. Chad finds himself increasingly back in single-coverage. With the team's rushing offense, play-action becomes twice as nasty. We could actually be where we thought we should have been in 2005 when we were excited about the team's future that went nowhere. Except this time, you get the feeling that our foundation and core is far stronger. Repeat champions, this time with a killer passing offense again? I'm to the point that I don't just think we will, I'm starting to expect it. Is that right? Yea, I'm giddy.
Apparently, Josh was having a Tickle-Me Elmo kind of morning, and understandably so. The prospect of Bryant lining up with Ochocinco and the newly-signed Antonio Bryant in multiple receiver sets was worth being giddy about and making declarations like this: "what's the risk to the team? We're Bengals fans. We know red flags when we see them. Bryant isn't a red flag." And even when the team made the sure bet with Gresham, there were grumblings here, with poster jsl413 concerned that "the Bengals are passing over Dez Bryant, a top-5 talent by many accounts, that also fits a need. If Bryant is a perennial Pro-Bowler, this is going to haunt the Bengals for a long time."
It remains to be seen what kind of talent Bryant can be in the NFL, but his rookie numbers (45 catches for 561 yards and 6 TDS, along with two punt return TDs) were impressive enough considering he missed much of training camp with an ankle sprain and the final four games of the season with an ankle fracture. Those numbers get momentarily elided now with the return of his behavioral issues.
Concerns about his attitude certainly aren't being assuaged by Sanders, who's been running down Bryant in the media the last few days. A former mentor of Bryant's, Sanders claims that he severed their relationship because of Bryant's dishonesty and the possibility of him detrimentally affecting children in Sanders's youth athletic program (Bryant says it's because he backed out of a marketing deal with Under Armor who supplies the program and that Sanders must be "getting something from Under Armour"). Sanders has gone so far as to negatively compare Bryant to former Cowboy/current Bengal Adam "Pacman" Jones.
"The difference between those guys is that Pac has had a troubled past, but he’s an honest kid," Sanders said. "If he messes up, he admits it and he’s honest. He’s not going to look at you in the eye and lie to you. He’s a straight up, honest kid. Both of them suffer from a lot of childhood problems, but one kid tells you just like it is and one kid tells you what he thinks you want to hear."
While those of us on the outside obviously can't speak to the image of Bryant-as-liar that Sanders is creating, we can try to piece together an idea of who he is from his actions. To keep things in perspective here, it's not like Bryant has gone on a Charlie Sheen bender or shot himself in the leg at a club. The story emerging is that of an immature young man with an acute case of bad shopping mall etiquette, which could be applied to most of the young people at the mall. The premiere sport of a 24-hour news cycle nation is shut down, so it's fair to say that Bryant's latest transgression is garnering some undue attention. When his defenders claim that he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time that's what they should be referring to. Then again, there is such a thing as good publicity, despite what Banksy says, and this isn't it for Bryant.
Of course, with all the uncertainly surrounding the Bengals' future these days having Bryant (retrospectively) under contract might well be worth the trouble, freeing them up to more comfortably pass over A. J. Green in the first round of the upcoming draft for someone like CB Patrick Peterson. And for what it's worth, the retailers at the NorthPark Center were quite fond of Bryant and his money, likely influencing the mall's decision to lift its ban.