Saturday, May 15, 2010

Is Dez Bryant at Punt Returner a Good Idea?


Head coach Wade Phillips recently declared rookie Dez Bryant the favorite to win the punt return duties for the Cowboys in 2010. We have already heard from a few of you on this subject, so we wanted put forth our thoughts on the issue.

While the majority of the people with whom we have spoken dislike the notion of Bryant back deep fielding punts, we definitely think it is the correct move. Bryant is a dynamic returner who can change the entire landscape of a game in the blink of an eye. . . at least he did so in college.

If he can prove he has that same sort of explosiveness in the NFL, then employing him on punt returns is a no-brainer.

A lot of people are of the mindset that it is too risky to use a player who is (or in all likelihood will be) a major component of either the offense or defense on returns.

While returners do get exposed to a higher probablity of big hits, the importance of both punt and kick returners is so great that the potential rewards outweigh the risks. We see both spots as nearly important as starting positions on offense and defense. Sure, a return man won’t see nearly the same number of snaps as, say, a running back, but each time he touches the ball the possibility for a “home run” is available.

Further, it is important to remember that sometimes overall value is not as important as value differential. For example, let’s assume Team X’s running back has a hypothetical value of 100 and their return man has a value of 50. Now we will assume Team Y’s running back has a hypothetical value of 90 and their return man has a value of 20.

Despite the fact that Team X’s return man is not as “valuable” as their running back in terms of overall points, the punt returner is more valuable in respect to his ability to help Team X beat Team Y.

Remember, football is a zero-sum game, meaning the success of Team X equates to the failure of Team Y. The running back for Team X may be a stud, but the differential value he creates is limited by the low standard deviation among the talent of running backs. In other words (and words that are more understandable), it is harder for a running back to be that much better than the other running backs around the league. The majority of practice time in the NFL is devoted to offense and defense. While “game speed” can never be fully duplicated in practice, it is much more difficult to properly simulate a game-level NFL return than an offensive play.

Thus, returning punts and kicks is more about natural ability than practice–meaning the standard deviation of talent among NFL returners is much greater than at other positions. The difference between the league’s best punt returners and the league’s worst punt returners is much larger than the same difference among running backs. This is what we mean when we say ‘value differential.’

Now, does Bryant hold a great enough ’value differential’ to be a lock as punt returner? Should he maintain the role if he eventually becomes the Cowboys’ #1 wide receiver? Only time will tell, but we think Bryant’s explosiveness and play-making ability could be great enough to justify him remaining the return man despite his offensive role.

Now, should he become a Pro Bowl-caliber wide receiver in a short time, the risk/reward for his stay at punt returner should be re-examined. But let’s not forget, Bryant is only a rookie–he has played in exactly as many NFL games as all of us at Dallas Cowboys Times.

So we say give Bryant a shot at punt returner (and even kick returner for that matter). The potential reward far outweighs the risk. Also remember the Cowboys drafted another fairly dynamic returner in Akwasi Owusu-Ansah. AOA can be groomed behind Bryant (don’t forget AOA is unable to practice until training camp due to a shoulder injury). Eventually, Owusu-Ansah will take over as the primary return man.

Let’s hope so, anyway, as that would likely mean Bryant’s offensive production increased to the point where the team could no longer justify utilizing him as a returner.