FRISCO, Texas – Somehow, this always felt inevitable.
Few would have guessed it would be the Baltimore Ravens, and no one could have predicted it'd happen on a Tuesday night during a global pandemic.
But from the time Dez Bryant departed The Star in his Bentley SUV back April 2018, his career as a Dallas Cowboy suddenly finished, it always felt likely that his old team would be seeing him again.
"I'm looking forward to it," said Bryant on Saturday. "A lot of those guys on that team I know, I'm real good friends with – hell of a football players. Whenever we line up across from one another, it's going to be fun. Like I said, it's going to be an exciting moment."
It speaks to Dez Bryant impact on the Cowboys that Tuesday night's matchup against Baltimore seems to revolve around his reunion with them.
On one hand, it's a bit overwrought. The 32-year-old receiver had not played an NFL game in three years when he signed with the Ravens last month. And while he has appeared in three games, it has mainly been a bit part, catching four passes for 28 yards to this point.
At the same time, it makes perfect sense. Originally drafted No. 24 overall by the Cowboys in 2010, Bryant grew into one of the most electric playmakers in the NFL, one of the best receivers in team history and an unquestioned bright spot of the post-Triplets era of Cowboys history.
"No one thinks more of Dez than Jerry, myself, the organization. He just had an amazing career here as a Dallas Cowboy," said Cowboys chief operating officer Stephen Jones on Friday. "We think the world of him and certainly know that he'll come with his best preparation, his best competitive spirit and know that we've got to play well."
The numbers speak for themselves. Across an eight-year career, Bryant became a steady force in the Cowboys' offense. During a three-year stretch from 2012-14, it's easy to argue he was one of the game's best receivers, as he became a first-team All-Pro on the strength of a 1,320-yard, 16-touchdown season in 2014.
His 531 career catches ranks third in franchise history, trailing only Jason Witten and Michael Irvin, while his 7,459 yards ranks fifth.
And of course there's the 73 career touchdowns in just 113 games, which places him atop the franchise record book.
"He'll go down as one of the great receivers in Cowboys history," Jones said.
Of course, as anyone who ever watched Bryant can attest, it was never about the numbers.
Throughout his time in Dallas, Bryant made his mark on the Cowboys, and on the league, with an unbridled enthusiasm and competitive spirit – not to mention an undeniable playmaking ability.
There are too many examples to list in one place. There were the electric punt return touchdowns as a rookie, the acrobatic, high-point touchdown catches across every year of his career – including when he was nursing knee and foot injuries.
How about the time he exploded for six catches, 116 yards and a touchdown against Pittsburgh, just days after the death of his father? Or how about the time he got into a pre-game jawing session with Eagles safety Malcom Jenkins on a night that would ultimately decide the 2014 NFC East title?
At the risk of picking at old scars, there's also the singular moment that may just define Bryant's entire career. In the waning moments of the 2014 divisional playoffs, Bryant out-leapt Packers cornerback Sam Shields for a fourth-down lob and came down with an absolute circus grab that may have turned the tide of a five-point game.
As it turned out, the only thing more iconic than the catch was the NFL's infamous reversal of the ruling – a miscue it has since corrected. Bryant's devastated reaction in the wake of referee Gene Steratore's announcement just might live longer than the play itself.
"That was a hell was a hell of a catch he made that day," said Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy, who was on the opposing sideline that day. "Unfortunately, the rules didn't line up for the Cowboys."
All of these anecdotes help paint the picture of a player who was one part receiver, one part spark plug. Ezekiel Elliott said on Friday that Bryant was one of his all-time favorite teammates, and he didn't hesitate when asked why.
"His energy and just his mentality," Elliott said. "His mentality I think is just unmatched, just the way he would go and attack the football. Just definitely his mentality and his play style."
And after every career highlight, Bryant was there to flash his No. 88, given to him in hopes of carrying the legacy of Irvin and Drew Pearson, and throw up the 'X' – a trademark celebration that took no time to sweep through the entire Cowboys fanbase.
Bryant carried that legacy well enough that the Cowboys opted to pass No. 88 on again. This past spring, when they made CeeDee Lamb their latest first-round selection at receiver, they gave him the number – a gesture which hasn't been lost on the rookie.
"For me to go against a guy I actually watched growing up excel in this jersey number, to have the opportunity to play against him is a huge honor on my end and speaks volumes on his part," Lamb said.
All of that said, there are two sides to these stories. If every aspect of Bryant's career had been so rosy, he may have actually finished the five-year, $70 million contract he signed back in 2015.
The same dynamism that made Bryant a must-see attraction also worked against him at times.
There was the time he went missing in action for several days in 2016, missing a scheduled MRI on his knee because he was afraid of what the results would reveal. There was the time in 2013 he headed for the locker room with 1:21 on the clock at the tail end of a devastating loss to the
Packers -- a decision he later apologized for.
"I was wrong," he said at the time. "It didn't have anything to do with my teammates. I just … I couldn't watch Green Bay kneel the ball down on the field after a tough loss like that."
It was a topic that former Cowboys coach Jason Garrett was well-versed in discussing: keeping his star receiver balanced and focused. And while Garrett was always sure to say that Bryant's passion was crucial to his team, it was also something that needed watching.
"The key is focusing that passion on the task at hand," Garrett said in 2013. "Dez understands that. He still is maturing as a player in this league. We want him to channel that energy and passion to the right things, which is mostly the next play."
That same passion may have contributed to Bryant's downfall in Dallas, as well. Late in a disappointing 2017 season, after the Cowboys had been eliminated from playoff contention by Seattle, Bryan voiced some displeasure with the Cowboys' offense under then-coordinator Scott Linehan, as well as his displeasure at the idea of taking a pay cut.
Four months later, after a brief meeting with ownership, Bryant was out – something else he expressed his displeasure with.
That wouldn't be the last time Bryant made himself heard on social media. In the time since his release, he has often taken to Twitter to dish on the team. Most notable was that fateful day during training camp in 2018, when Bryant accused his former teammates of contributing to his ouster, famously calling Sean Lee a snake in the process.
As raw as the emotions around the split might have been, the Cowboys never burned that bridge. As recently as February, when Bryant was angling for a reunion with his old team, Jerry Jones maintained that he had no ill will for his former star.
"It didn't end that way with me and him, and it didn't end that way with me," Jones said. "I understand completely how things can end that way. I've seen those types of, those characteristics of people and organizations ending, and those are reparable. They really are."
Time seems to have helped heal those wounds. Bryant has spent much of the last two years rehabbing a torn Achilles, which he suffered during his first practice of a very brief stint with the New Orleans Saints.
During that down time, he was sure to keep everyone appraised of his progress and his desire to play. It's been easy to see that, recently, he's also had plenty of supportive things to say about his former team.
Asked about it this week, Bryant seemed to confirm that idea, stating that he had moved past it.
"For the most part, it's water under the bridge," he said. "That's two years. I had to get myself together. You got to go forward with life because life isn't going to wait on you. Time waits on no one. I had to get myself together and move forward."
It's encouraging to think the whole story just might have a happy ending. Bryant's departure from Dallas and his return to the NFL was much like his Cowboys career – unpredictable, complicated, passionate and entertaining.
There was plenty of doubt that Bryant would ever play another snap in the league. Not only did he do that as a member of the Baltimore practice squad, but he signed an official contract to the Ravens' 53-man roster on Nov. 28.
As for the Cowboys, they seem to have a budding star in their new No. 88 – not to mention two other top-notch receivers in Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup. Somehow, both parties might have emerged from this saga just fine.
Perhaps that's why, even as Bryant hopes to contribute to another Cowboys loss on Tuesday night, you won't hear much in the way of hard feelings – and certainly not from his former employers.
"Dez is an eternal light of positiveness for our game," said Jerry Jones last week. "I couldn't be happier to see him on the field."
Having said that, pre-game story lines don't count for much after the ball is kicked. Baltimore is fighting to stay afloat in the AFC wild card race, while Dallas desperately needs a win to keep its slim hope of a playoff berth alive. With all that in mind, DeMarcus Lawrence thinks the reunion will be friendly – but perhaps not too friendly.
"Even though he's wearing different colors, I still have love and respect for Dez," Lawrence said. "But he knows who he's going up against. There ain't no mercy out there on that grass."
Knowing everything we know about Dez Bryant, he wouldn't have it any other way.