<
>

Why is the WWE failing with Daniel Bryan?

Daniel Bryan has the potential to have some truly special matches and tell some tremendous stories with the depth of talent on the SmackDown roster, but in his first three months back, it hasn't really played out that way yet. EPA/Balazs Czagany

Daniel Bryan made the seemingly impossible happen when he announced his return to in-ring action. After three years on the shelf, he came back at WrestleMania 34 to tag with Shane McMahon and defeat Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn.

Through the rest of April, it seemed as though the WWE was cashing in on the unbelievable excitement his return generated by putting him up against AJ Styles in a SmackDown main event and having him set the all-time record for longest time spent in a Royal Rumble in Saudi Arabia's Greatest Royal Rumble event.

But everything went off the rails in a hurry from there, and despite some hopeful moments along the way, it's still not clear that there's any definitive plan for Bryan's future, in either the short or long term. The specter of a massive Miz-Bryan blowoff at WrestleMania 35 is fantastic, but there's no reason not to take advantage of everything else SmackDown has to offer for the rest of 2018.

Heaven forbid Bryan suffers another injury that either sidelines him or reduces his in-ring capacity while he's messing around in mid-card rivalries that are going nowhere. WWE has been given a second chance to make magic with an absolutely iconic performer, and it would be downright shameful to look back at this period of time and be left wondering what might have been.

play
3:51

Daniel Bryan responds to The Miz's promo

SmackDown Live general manager Daniel Bryan gives his thoughts about The Miz's promo toward him on "Talking Smack" and whether they can coexist going forward.

Thus far it's been a lot more of the former than the latter. Once May began, Bryan got entangled in a two-month rivalry with Big Cass, a giant who was getting booed by the crowd for all of the wrong reasons, and a still-under-experienced in-ring performer. Putting Bryan, with his injury history, at risk with a performer who, at times, was seemingly very sloppy in the ring was an incredible risk to take.

Even though Bryan won both pay-per-view matches convincingly, the in-between was a mess. His match and loss to Rusev in a Money in the Bank qualifying match was fine, because it played off of previous damage suffered, but WWE further burned fans by promoting a dream rematch more than a decade in the making between Bryan and Samoa Joe by inserting Big Cass into the middle of it.

If you're curious as to what the potential of that match might be, check out the first of their three Ring of Honor world championship matches from all the way back in 2004.

Extenuating circumstances saw Big Cass released from WWE immediately after his match with Bryan at Money in the Bank. The following Tuesday brought a world of new possibilities, as Bryan took part in a five-man gauntlet match to determine the new No. 1 contender for the WWE championship. Against a fresh opponent in Big E, and given the time to tell a story in the ring, Bryan and Big E shocked a lot of people in the opening stage of the match, with Bryan ultimately pulling off the first fall after 11 strong minutes. We then got 16-plus minutes of Joe and Bryan one-on-one, and it was a glimpse into everything we could get from a longer-term rivalry between them.

Bryan won that fall by countout, preserving a more conclusive decision for down the road, and the promise and possibility of a Bryan-Miz face-to-face after years of unrequited tensions loomed with only three people left in the match.

But once again, the WWE had other, hard to rationalize plans. After an awkward staredown with the Bludgeon Brothers as their match ended and the main event began, that moment and a claim that Bryan could take down all of the giants of SmackDown led the SmackDown tag team champions to lay Bryan out. That allowed the Miz to slide in and take the fall instead which, admittedly, is a strong moment to tack on to all the rest if you're not going to visit that rivalry just yet.

As Bryan attempted to go it alone against the Bludgeon Brothers, Kane, the presumptive next mayor of Knox County, Tennessee, made an unexpected return and drew a nostalgic pop when he reunited with Bryan to even things up. Team Hell No immediately received a SmackDown tag team title shot, shining a light on just how disjointed the tag team divisions on Raw and SmackDown are at the moment, and that's where things stand going into Extreme Rules.

Is there anything inherently wrong with going back to the well with a brief Team Hell No reunion? Of course not. But if this is more than either a one-match or short-term reunion, it'll be another case of taking Bryan and trying to use him to patch up a hole when he's much better suited for bigger things. If this ultimately turns toward a quick falling out and rivalry with Kane, it gets even messier. Just remember how awkward their WWE championship rivalry and subsequent matches over the year that followed. Better yet, let's not.

It's completely understandable that WWE would be apprehensive to put a singles title on Bryan at this point, considering how that ended with both his last WWE championship and Intercontinental title reigns. But that doesn't mean that Bryan, one of the most universally popular WWE stars in the company's history, shouldn't be sniffing around the title picture and putting on crowd-pleasing performances and living out dream match scenarios on the regular.

There's a way you can wrap your head around the logic of breaking Bryan down to build him back up again, but that doesn't have to mean a slow, meandering spiral to the bottom, either. A heartbreaking loss to AJ Styles with the title in reach, a long and intense rivalry with Samoa Joe or a feud with Shinsuke Nakamura that could blow the doors off any arena in the world are just a few examples of options at the WWE's fingertips right now.

And then there's The Miz, with whom Bryan has incredible chemistry and history. If done right, that's a rivalry of the year in the making.

For now, it's simply a matter of misuse.