Less than a week into free agency, however, Robinson signed on the dotted line in Jacksonville for five years and $32.5 million ($13.8 million guaranteed).
Just like that, a receiver who caught 11 touchdowns for the Cowboys the year prior was packing his bags. Two weeks into the 2012 preseason schedule and Dallas may be regretting not doing more to bring back Robinson.
Injuries to both Dez Bryant and Miles Austin have exposed the Cowboys' lack of depth at the receiver position—something Robinson helped cover in a big way during the 2011 season.
After bouncing around early in his NFL career from the Atlanta Falcons to St. Louis Rams, Robinson finally delivered a breakout year for Cowboys last season. The fifth-year receiver proved to be the team's most reliable receiver, catching 54 passes for 859 yards and 11 scores, all career-highs.
Prior to 2011, Robinson had just four receiving touchdowns and zero seasons of 500 or more yards.
When Austin missed six games with a hamstring issue in 2011, Robinson was granted the opportunity he needed. He caught eight of his 11 touchdowns with Austin out of the lineup.
Despite the unexpected season, it appeared Robinson would be a strong candidate to re-sign in Dallas.
Robinson in late November, via Tim MacMahon of ESPN Dallas:
I would love to be wearing the star the rest of my career. I love everything about Dallas, my teammates. The stadium is out of control. That’s why you see me smiling every time I catch the ball. I just feel like this changed my whole career around. I’m just loving it here.
Even in early March, right before the start of free agency, Robinson was signing the same tune. He wanted to stay in Dallas.
From Jon Machota of the Dallas Morning News:
I’m loving wearing this jersey. I’m hoping to stay here as a Cowboy. But we’ll see on March 13 when free agency starts. Hopefully my dream can come true and I can stay a Cowboy.
Robinson's wife, Kat, also sounded somewhat sure that a deal would fall into place with the Cowboys. Again, the couple wanted to remain in Dallas.
From Machota's report:
I know we’re not supposed to be looking at houses, but we are ready. It’s an amazing city and even when he’s done with his NFL career, I can see us possibly retiring in Dallas.
Yet when the money came calling from the Jaguars, Dallas no longer remained such a sure-thing. Robinson signed for considerably more than most expected in what was a historically deep free-agent class of receivers.
While the money was probably never something the Cowboys could have matched, you get the sense that it wouldn't have taken the full $32.5 million for Robinson to re-sign in Dallas. He wanted to be there, but he also wanted to be compensated fairly. It seemed like a middle ground could have been reached.
Now, the Cowboys enter a very important 2012 season with two injury-prone receivers in Bryant and Austin, and very little behind them in terms of quality, proven depth.
Bryant needed an MRI on his right knee this week, and despite the encouraging prognosis of "knee tendinitis" and not something worse, this ding is just the latest in a long string of injury problems Bryant has suffered through early in his NFL career.
Bryant has missed four games in two seasons with the Cowboys.
Austin is just as injury-prone, and he's currently on the shelf with another hamstring injury. Over the last 12 months, Austin has weathered through at least four separate hamstring injuries. The problem is bordering on "chronic."
Behind Austin and Bryant are receivers Kevin Ogletree, Dwayne Harris, Danny Coale, Andre Holmes and Cole Beasley.
While Holmes has shown flashes and Beasley caught seven passes for 104 yards against the San Diego Chargers in Week 2 of the preseason, Dallas is still woefully unproven at the No. 3 and 4 receiver positions.
Ogletree is the likely No. 3, and he caught four passes for 60 yards against the Chargers. However, his career numbers are just 25 catches for 294 yards and zero touchdowns, so the Cowboys are rolling the dice that he can become the second coming of Robinson if either Bryant or Austin have to miss considerable time in 2012.
Back before the 2012 NFL draft, Dallas Morning News columnist Kevin Sherrington wrote that not re-signing Robinson was a mistake and that the Cowboys needed to make a draft pick at the position.
Everyone says the Cowboys made the right decision letting Robinson go, but I disagree. He wasn't really a 3. The way Miles Austin and Dez Bryant get hurt, he was really a 2 and sometimes a 1. Ogletree is a big drop-off. They'd better draft someone with some potential.
Dallas did draft Coale in the fifth round, but he's battled injuries in camp and could be on the roster bubble. He certainly doesn't look like a potential breakout candidate for 2012.
Overall, the Cowboys took a calculated risk in letting Robinson leave in free agency this spring.
While it would have been difficult to spend a boat-load of money on a "third" receiver, the injury histories of both Bryant and Austin should have made it necessary for the Cowboys to work harder to get him back.
If Bryant or Austin have to miss a chunk of the 2012 season, and Ogletree and company can't hold down the fort as well as Robinson did a year ago, the Cowboys passing game might take a step back.
In such an important and hyped season, not getting a guy back who wanted to be in Dallas could end up being a regrettable decision.
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