IRVING, Texas – Entering his second season with the Cowboys, Brice Butler has a much better idea of what to expect in 2016 – and that pertains to far more than just football.
It's easy to forget now, after the turbulent 2015 season that saw the Cowboys finish 4-12, but Butler's induction to the organization was a trial by fire. After being acquired in a trade just two days after Dez Bryant broke his foot, Butler spent most of the season adapting on the fly.
"With the trade and all of that, it's a lot of stress that – you don't think of it, because you feel like you're ok, but really that's a lot of stress," he said. "You lose your job, then you find out you've got a job, then you fly somewhere else and then you come here and it's hot as crap."
The climate was an obvious adjustment for a guy coming from Oakland, where Butler said the Raiders practice in 65-degree weather. On top of that, there was the little task of replacing Bryant, whose injury left the Cowboys without their primary touchdown threat.
"One of the challenges with players when they come into your team during the regular season is they don't have a real foundation with you," said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett. "They're kind of picking things up on the run and they're learning game plans and they're learning your system as you're getting ready to play a game."
Of course, as Cowboys fans should remember, Butler had a limited chance to make an impact. He played half of one game before Tony Romo went down with a broken collarbone. Two weeks later, he suffered his own setback when he strained his hamstring on an electrifying, 67-yard reception in New Orleans.
Asked if that big reception against the Saints personified his style of play, Butler grimaced.
"Yeah and no, because I got hurt in the play," he said. "If I was healthy I would have scored, so I'd say 50-50 – yes and no."
It took Butler the better part of two months to regain his form after injuring the hamstring. He made two catches in the Week 6 loss to the Giants but re-aggravated the injury. He didn't receive another opportunity until late in the season, when he totaled nine grabs for 150 yards over the final three weeks of the season.
"Clearly he has some ability to make some plays," Garrett said. "It's just going to be good to get him back into the offseason program and lay the foundation with our strength and conditioning staff, but also with the system, knowing how we do things starting from ground zero."
That foundation was what Butler stressed the most in talking about his offseason. Whereas last year he was fighting to keep pace with the schedule, he can now focus on concepts and building blocks.
"I get to learn the offense, like the philosophies and what the coaches want, rather than just learning the gameplan – what we're running against this team, what we're running against that team," he said. "Now I get to learn why we do certain things, so it's actually been big."
The result is that he's faced with a big opportunity in his second season. The Cowboys haven't done much to address the receiver position in recent seasons. The result is that, other than Bryant and Cole Beasley, they don't have significant resources invested in the position beyond 2016.
"It's a strong group, man," Butler said. "I feel like, if we're all doing what we're capable of, we can be a highly potent, air raid. We've just got to go out there and do it."
That includes Butler, who himself enters a contract year knowing that, after showing some flashes of promise, it's time to deliver.
"For me, I've got to stay healthy," he said. "I can't really say anything unless I'm out there playing. I've got to be available."