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Romo down, Dez is up

The Dallas Cowboys are officially Dez’s team — but who he brings with him is what really matters

Five hundred and ninety-eight days have passed since Jan. 11, 2015. Otherwise known as the last time the Dallas Cowboys played a meaningful football game.

It’s the game that produced the infamous DeMarco Murray fumble, but the even more notorious Dez Bryant catch that was ultimately ruled a noncatch. What it is ultimately, though, is the last time the Tony Romo-Dez Bryant connection registered a heartbeat. And really, the last time the fan base did as a whole. Last season was perhaps the most frustrating in the now 22-year, post-Jimmy Johnson Cowboys universe. Tony Romo and Bryant combined to miss 19 games. The team went 4-12 — 1-11 without Romo and 1-6 without Bryant.

This year had positioned itself as a redemption year for the polarizing quarterback-receiver tandem. A Hollywood production fit for a team every bit as Hollywood despite the 1,400-plus-mile gap between the Hollywood sign and “The House That Jerry Built.” But everything changed the night of Aug. 25 in Seattle, when Seattle Seahawks defensive lineman Cliff Avril crunched Romo as he attempted to slide on third down. The deafening crack heard around the league wasn’t only the quarterback’s vertebra, his second major back injury. It might have also been the Cowboys’ guard.

Much of the talk about the Cowboys heading into opening week centers on two high-profile rookies: running back Ezekiel Elliott, the fourth overall pick in April’s NFL draft, and quarterback Dak Prescott, a fourth-round selection. Prescott has been arguably the best player in the league if any weight is held in preseason performances. August hype aside, don’t get it twisted.

The 2016 Dallas Cowboys are officially Bryant’s team. The undeniable ‘X’ factor.

There’s a classic Chris Rock standup routine about grown-man play dates. About how two married men who have never met each other struggle to find much to talk about outside of sports and routes to work. Last Friday night, in an Uber ride coming back from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, I found myself in a similar situation. As anyone familiar with Uber can testify, there are two types of drivers: the ones who don’t say a word and just get you to your destination and the ones who talk your head off. In this instance, it was the latter.

Out of the blue, the driver, a Washington Redskins fan, asked, “So who’s your football team?”

“I’m a depressed Dallas Cowboys fan. I’d rather not talk about it right now.”

Somehow, “rather not talk about it right now” came off as an open invitation to critique the Cowboys. In particular, No. 88.

“You know who I really like? Dez Bryant,” he said. It’s classic Criticism 101. Lead with a compliment. Finish with an uppercut. “But I just wish he would shut the f— up and play football, man. He b—— and moans too damn much for me. Always whining.”

Take a second to Google “Dez Bryant maturity.” A list of articles appear. Some praise Bryant for his growth as a player and a teammate. Others are not so flattering, resembling the stance of the aforementioned Uber driver who went as far as to say Bryant was and still is a thug and ticking time bomb whose career could be derailed with every passing word. It’s the extremist, “all in one way or the other” coverage that defines Bryant’s style of play and life in general.

“My passion is always positive,” Bryant told ESPN in 2013 regarding his emotions following a sideline outburst in a 31-30 loss to the Detroit Lions. “It’s always positive. It’s going to remain the same way. I’m not saying anything wrong. I’m not saying anything bad. It’s all positive. That’s just what it is. I’m the nicest person off the field. When I’m on the field, even when I look angry, it’s still all good passion. It’s all good passion. I feel like that’s what we need. I’m going to remain the same way. I feel like I love this game. I love it. In order to win, you’ve got to be passionate about this game. You have to be. You’ve got to let that dog come out and just put it all out there on the line.”

It’s the stereotype — oftentimes with racial undertones — thrown on him without much consideration from where the passion and intensity, and at times recklessness, derive. This is part of being Bryant, the most misunderstood superstar in a league no longer featuring the now retired Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch.

Bryant stands on an interesting cusp in 2016, too. Individually, there’s the quest to claw his way back to the proverbial summit of Mt. Rice-Moss that the league’s best receiver calls home. There’s also the desperation to prove 2015 was an outlier, the ugly duckling in a potential Hall of Fame-caliber career. Only seven touchdowns separate this iteration of No. 88 from his equally talented, emotional and flamboyant mentor, Michael Irvin. Thirteen puts him in sole possession of first in team history. But it’s Bryant the mentor that could be the most fascinating storyline in a franchise that never battles a headline drought.

No quarterback drafted in the fourth round expects to start week 1, but that’s where Prescott is right now. And in an offseason and preseason filled with everything from freaky Snapchat tales, claims of domestic violence and a marijuana dispensary visit in Seattle, Elliott has already received a crash course into the level of scrutiny being a professional entails, especially when there’s a star on the helmet. Bryant, in his own maniacal way, though, is more than capable of provide his own brand of peace in a world predicated and nurtured in pandemonium. Maybe most important, too, he’s a fan of both.

“He had me crazy,” Bryant told Jon Machota of SportsDay of Elliott’s impressive preseason debut in Seattle, a game where the rookie openly challenged Seahawks’ bruising safety Kam Chancellor. “Had me crazy on fire. Like, ‘Hey, that’s what I’m talking about. He’s ready. He’s ready to go.’ One thing me and Zeke talk about, it’s about having fun. You’ve just got to have fun. Don’t go out there thinking. You’ve got to have fun and just go dominate. Go own that [expletive].”

Looking beyond 2016, any hint of success in Dallas will be predicated largely upon the progression of Prescott and Elliott. Bryant comes off as a hothead on occasion, but it’s tough to imagine anyone outwardly obsessed with winning more than him (with the exception of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones). Unparalleled passion and dedication, however manifested, is a prerequisite to success in a league where the shelf life is short and relevancy even shorter. Whether he acts as a drill sergeant or big brother or a combination of both, Bryant figures to be a beast of many hats this season.

Come early before practice. Run extra routes hours after practice. Double up in the weight room. Consider this “paying it forward.” Bryant’s had his share of mentors since entering the league in 2010, from teammate and future Hall of Fame tight end Jason Witten to Basketball Hall of Famer Michael Jordan and Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul. Bryant taking Prescott and Elliott under his wing only seems fitting. When healthy and engaged, he is arguably the most dependable security blanket in the league, a first option Prescott will rely on heavily if Dallas is to see any sort of immediate return on investment.

Neither rookie should assume the onus of Romo’s absence and place it squarely on their shoulders. But a mandate coming from the team’s best player in Bryant, even at the sacrifice of his own numbers dipping slightly, could pay off handsomely in the long run. And at quarterback and running back in Dallas, the media component is a never-ending factor. No player on the team is better equipped on the do’s and don’t’s of media etiquette than Bryant, in part because he’s still learning himself. Nearly any situation the league has to offer Prescott and Elliott — sans the utterly outrageous a la Aaron Hernandez or Greg Hardy — chances are their veteran receiver has not only lived through it, but survived. Bryant is a survivor.

Maturity isn’t simply “growing up.” It’s imparting game on those behind you.

“Hov did that, so hopefully you won’t have to go through that,” as Cowboys fan Jay Z (and Bryant’s boss at sports management company Roc Nation Sports) waxed poetically nearly 15 years ago on The Blueprint.

How Bryant maps out his own blueprint in a season already bursting at the seams with drama is a condition yet to be diagnosed. It’s impossible to “pick up where you left off” after losing a Pro Bowl quarterback for what figures to be the first half of the season. Nor is it easy to predict how rookies Prescott and Elliott will adapt to the speed of the pro game.

Bryant’s talent presents the daunting responsibility of rallying troops. Romo’s not here right now. Chances are Bryant and the Cowboys may never see Romo in the form that had Dallas fans talking legit Super Bowl aspirations 598 days ago.

“I was pretty shocked,” Bryant said of Romo’s most recent injury. “All the work he put in to get to this point, just to see him go down like that, it was pretty bad. Me knowing nine, he’s going to get himself together. He’s going to get back right and come back stronger than ever.”

What else would he say about the man who helped him become one of the league’s most vicious targets, the one constantly under attack more than him? Because of that, a final gasp for the Romo-Bryant connection seems appropriate. In six to 10 weeks, a lifetime in the NFL. Sink or swim, though, Bryant is now the captain of the ship. Unfamiliar territory for a wideout in a league governed and marketed off the strength of quarterbacks. The bulk of the expectations on America’s most divisive franchise rests on his multimillion-dollar palms. As does the thirst from the critics praying for his downfall. The same detractors believing the words “Dez Bryant” and “leader” never belong in the same sentence unless separated by “is not.”

Opportunities perpetually crash-land in the middle of chaos. Thankfully for Bryant, he’s painted some of his life’s best work to that soundtrack. His biggest year is also his realest one.

Justin Tinsley is a senior culture writer for Andscape. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single most impactful statement of his generation.