What a difference a week makes.

Batista returns after nearly four years to win the Royal Rumble, C.M. Punk unceremoniously leaves the company, and Daniel Bryan appears to finally be headed for a top spot.

Punk's surprise departure is the apparent result of burnout along with his strong conviction that WWE lacks long-term creative vision.

Nowhere is that lack of long-term vision more apparent than WWE's mishandling of its hottest property.

And that's not Punk or Batista.

It's Daniel Bryan.

To WWE owner Vince McMahon, the overwhelming response Bryan gets at house shows and on TV should sound like cash flowing into company coffers.

But therein lies the dilemma.

Bryan is the most "over" performer on the WWE roster. Bar none.

Rarely has a fan base's reaction to a WWE performer been so strong.

Only problem is that the WWE powers that be don't seem to share that same enthusiasm. The thunderous "Yes! Yes! Yes!" chants Bryan receives at every stop fall on deaf ears when it comes to the company recognizing the phenom as worthy of world title consideration.

Burning questions still surround Bryan's status in WWE.

Is he as valuable a commodity as fans apparently believe, or do WWE officials really not see Bryan's worth as translating to significantly higher TV ratings and pay-per-view buyrates? Does the company share the same vision for Bryan as its fan base?

It remains puzzling, however, why WWE ignored the pleas of its own fans for so long.

The company's stance might make some semblance of sense if it were part of an elaborate storyline to have fans craving for Bryan's ascension, but with a big payoff at the end.

That position would be risky, though, with many fans possibly reaching the saturation point and dropping the product before the big push. And with WWE's launch of its new network next month, that risk certainly wouldn't be one worth taking.

While Bryan may yet still be headed for a top position in the championship pecking order, one has to question the path WWE has taken to get him there.

'Best in the World'

Punk's frustrations with WWE have been building for some time. They last came to a head with his infamous "pipe bomb" promo in 2011. It was a surreal moment that would catapult him through the glass ceiling and into the WWE hierarchy for the next two years.

But the grueling WWE schedule, as it is wont to do, has taken a physical toll on the 35-year-old wrestler.

"There's a lot of miles on me," Punk said recently. "Right now, I feel a lot better than I have. For months there for a while, I felt really, really horrible. We were trying to figure out what was wrong. I think I was literally getting an MRI a week and blood work just to narrow down what was wrong with me."

Punk also has been vocal about his displeasure with the WWE creative team. He verbalized his feelings during a recent appearance at the Portland Comic Con.

"Every week, it's like, 'What are we doing?' Or, 'Oh, they don't remember that; it was two weeks ago.' Or, dropping things at the slightest notion that it's not working or having no real plan of what you're doing ... They're worrying about Wrestlemania right now. If it were my company, I would have that all settled and I would be worrying about Wrestlemania 31."

Punk, whose contract expires in July, made it official when he left the company last week before a live airing of Monday Night Raw.

Punk simply told WWE owner Vince McMahon that he was going home and wasn't coming back.

Punk has refuted rumors that he was upset over Batista, who had returned to the company only six days earlier, winning the Rumble and getting a title shot at Wrestlemania. He has made it clear in the past, though, that he was against "part-timers" coming in and getting big payoffs at Mania.

Punk's abrupt departure throws a wrench into this year's Wrestlemania plans. Punk was scheduled to wrestle Triple H in another high-profile bout at the big event, which now raises the possibility of Bryan sliding into that role.

Bryan had been penciled in for a lower-card match with Sheamus, a bout few wanted to see, particularly since it would only serve to bring back unpleasant memories of Bryan's 18-second world title loss to Sheamus at Wrestlemania 28 in Miami.

Leaving on his terms

While Punk may feel that WWE could have done more, both sides have benefited from the relationship, albeit an uneasy one at times.

Punk has built a strong brand in WWE and has become a major star in the business over the past few years. That star power is not likely to be forgotten when he makes his inevitable return.

But, like Punk has done in the past, he is leaving on his own terms. That's what rebels do.

"Stone Cold" Steve Austin, one of pro wrestling's greatest iconoclasts and anti-authority figures, left WWE of his own accord in 2002.

Frustrated with WWE storylines, Austin went home on a day where he was tentatively booked to lose to Brock Lesnar on Raw.

"I was back in a place when I walked away from the company. I didn't like what they had to tell me. I took my ball and went home as they spun it," Austin remarked Thursday night on the Arsenio Hall show.

Austin blasted WWE on the way out, but later was welcomed back and eventually inducted into the Hall of Fame by McMahon. He sees Punk going that same route.

"I think he (Punk) was backed against the corner, got a little frustrated, and he took his ball and went home. I think one of two things will happen. I think Vince will fly down there to Chicago or wherever he is and work some Jedi mind tricks and convince him to come back, or maybe he will think through the process - and he's got a lot of years left in the tank - and never leave money on the table when you can go ahead and make that money."

Austin, who headlined during the company's most profitable period ever in the late 90's, also noted that Punk would miss out on a good payday considering it's Wrestlemania season.

"Bad timing because you've got Wrestlemania 30 going down in the Superdome because that's going to be a good payday and a good ride to make."

'Just don't get it'

Punk's departure leaves an opening for a coveted top spot.

And, like it or not, WWE may have to give that consideration to Bryan.

Like Punk, Bryan isn't your prototypical WWE star.

Unlike Punk, though, Bryan isn't as vocally demonstrative. But even he has had his limits in recent weeks.

"They never aspired for me to be where I'm at," said Bryan. "There are certain guys, they see somebody, and they say, 'I see money in that guy.' I don't think they ever looked at me and said 'I see money in that guy.'

"To this day, even with the loud fan reactions that I get, I feel like the company still doesn't see money in me, and that's just interesting because you go out there and do your best, and sometimes it can be very, very frustrating."

Before the Royal Rumble match, the crowd chanted Bryan's name and offered a "boring" chant in protest during a relatively strong John Cena-Randy Orton WWE heavyweight title match.

The boos even spread to the Rumble, traditionally one of the most well-received bouts of the year, but this time marked by the conspicuous absence of Daniel Bryan.

Instead of getting a returning hero's ovation at the end of the match, Rumble winner Batista got a mixed reaction from the vocal Pittsburgh crowd, creating an awkward scene as the former WWE champ attempted to celebrate while fireworks went off in the arena.

Bryan's role on the show was shining in defeat to Bray Wyatt in the opening match. Fans clung to their anger the remainder of the night and booed heavily when the 30th and final participant in the Rumble emerged, and it was not Bryan.

Three-time WWE champ Mick Foley, who was inducted into the company's Hall of Fame last year, let his thoughts be known immediately after the event.

"Does WWE actually hate their own audience?" Foley wondered aloud on Twitter. "I've never been so disgusted with a PPV."

"Like many of you out there, I just don't get it," Foley added. "This Daniel Bryan thing is a phenomenon. You get it. I get it. The fans in Pittsburgh ... got it. But tonight, for the first time, I had to admit to myself that the powers that be are just not going to get it. And that makes me sad."

Foley later symbolically expressed his frustration by smashing his television set with a baseball bat.

Foley said while he would probably still attend Wrestlemania, "I'm about one-sixth as excited about it as I was."

That's certainly not an endorsement coming from a valued WWE legend who will have no contract ties to the company in a month.

Former WWE star Justin Credible also expressed his displeasure in a blog.

"I can't remember the last time I felt so let down by an event. I figured even if everything else bombs, the Rumble match is always good, and we would figure out who was going to challenge for the WWE world title at Wrestlemania 30. Well, as most of you know, it was not the epic event we were all expecting."

Credible added that he wasn't at all enticed by a possible Orton-Batista matchup at Wrestlemania.

"He (Bryan) had a PPV-saving performance against an unproven Bray Wyatt. Both men brought it Sunday night, and it was the only thing worth watching at the Rumble. I'm not surprised that Bryan wasn't in the Rumble. I saw no indication that the WWE creative team was positioning him for a WWE title hunt. Well the fans certainly did, and they voiced their opinions. They more than voiced their opinions, they hijacked the PPV."

Another former WWE star, Shane "Hurricane" Helms, was blunt in his assessment, lamenting that WWE was still run by "Muscle Marks."

"WWE is going to have a real rabbit to pull out of the hat with their creative direction," commented longtime fan Joe Dobrowski. "Perception is becoming reality and when fans think there isn't a payoff, and they do care about the product, the result is mutinous crowds rejecting and hijacking shows. They are going to have this problem until this is addressed somehow."

Last week nearly 100,000 fans petitioned the White House online to demand that the wildly popular Bryan receive a WWE world heavyweight championship match at Wrestlemania 30.

While the petition was taken down by the website in short order, the message was loud and clear to WWE.

It's time for Daniel Bryan to get his moment in the sun.

Money player?

It would be difficult to argue that the WWE creative team has put Bryan in a position to succeed. One might even assume that they don't want him in the world title picture.

That point was driven home two weeks ago when Bryan, who for no plausible reason was inserted into the Wyatt family for a week, turned on Bray Wyatt on Raw, and turned the Providence Civic Center into a thunderous "Yes! Yes! Yes!" rally.

Try as they might, the powers that be just couldn't make the fans turn on Bryan.

Just weeks earlier those same massive chants were reverberating off the walls at Key Arena in Seattle, Wash., where thousands of fans cheered wildly for Bryan.

But those deafening roars have continued to fall upon deaf ears at WWE headquarters.

While the public has demanded that Bryan be given championship respect, WWE has only ignored Bryan's sizable support base.

Bryan himself realizes the dilemma that WWE finds itself it. He knows the question they're asking.

"He's getting a great reaction, but is he actually selling tickets?"

In other words, WWE management recognizes that he's grabbing attention. They're just not so sure that he can grab dollars as easily.

"And that's the company's bottom line is we need people who can sell tickets," says Bryan. "I can get the crowd to react very loudly, but does that translate into people buying pay-per-views?"

Hopefully WWE will give Bryan a chance to answer that burning question.

Maybe with 80,000 howling fans cheering "Yes! Yes! Yes" as he hoists the WWE world title high in the air on professional wrestling's biggest stage.

Reach Mike Mooneyham at 843-937-5517 or mooneyham@postandcourier.com, or follow him on Twitter @ByMike Mooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham.