Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
The Dallas Cowboys' Dez Bryant came into the 2012 season with a reputation for having a lot of talent and potential that he was not living up to. Now, as the Cowboys are in the home stretch of a run to make the playoffs, he has emerged as the team's most potent receiving threat.
There is a bit of a meme about wide receivers in the NFL that many of the best have their breakout year in their third season in the league. That meme is a little bit stronger with the development of Dez Bryant, who in his third year in the league has finally shown the kind of production that many Dallas fans have been waiting for.
With 1,087 yards and 10 touchdowns, he is clearly the biggest offensive threat that the Cowboys' opponents have to deal with. He is now being discussed as a possible Pro-Bowl selection. And he has also become an inspirational leader with his determination to continue contributing to the team despite a broken finger suffered against the Cincinnati Bengals. He continued his streak of games with a touchdown and helped in the comeback win against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
But things did not look like they were going to turn out so well early this year. The much publicized assault charges brought by his mother before the season threatened to derail him. And the shadow of possible prosecution hanging over him seemed to have a clear influence on his performance. Through the game against the Philadelphia Eagles on 11/11, he only had three touchdowns and was averaging 65.5 yards in the first nine games.
Then on 11/14, a deal was worked out where if he continued to attend anger management classes and stayed out of trouble for a year, the charges would be dropped. And Bryant suddenly became much more consistent, scoring seven touchdowns and averaging 99.4 yards over the next five contests.
This would certainly seem to be much more than just a coincidence. For a young player who had some clear maturity issues, the mental strain of not knowing if he was going to have to go to trial or face sanctions from the league must have been extremely distracting. Now, with a clear knowledge of what he faces and having control over his own destiny, so to speak, he appears to have gotten his focus. The results have been very good for him and the team.
Having the legal issues resolved is only part of the story, however. It is obvious Bryant is showing a much better grasp of the game. His route running is clearly better, and Tony Romo has much more faith in him than he used to. It should be remembered that Dez just turned 24 this season. Despite being a beast physically, he still is maturing as a man and a player. And it is showing. His teammates have gained a new respect for him which was only increased by his courage and dedication in forgoing surgery on his finger to do all he could to help the team in the stretch run.
He is also a living example of how the team has changed under the tenure of head coach Jason Garrett. Just as there were many cries for Bryant to be traded or cut after the news broke about the charges brought against him (and which did not seem to take the full story into account), Garrett has faced many calls for him to be replaced, particularly after the 3-5 start to the season. But Garrett stayed true to his principles, and now things are starting to pay off. Bryant is one of the best examples of how that can work. By continuing to put in the effort and learning his craft as a football player, he is beginning to realize that huge potential. His emergence this year is just one of the more visible examples of how you develop talent and grow leaders. This is happening up and down the roster, from Romo having one of the best stretches of play in his career to putting an effective defense on the field with players who have to rely on GPS to find the team facilities because they were so recently signed to replace injured Cowboys. Instead of giving up under adversity, the way the team did in the first half of 2010, this version of the Cowboys just digs in and fights through.
There is no other sport that is so reliant on the meshing of disparate talents as football. While the focus is so often on the quarterback and a few other standout performers, no team can succeed unless it can get all 11 players on the field to work together effectively. It is certainly hard to thrive as a team without someone with the ability to shred defenses with his arm that Romo has, but as we saw early in the season, that is not enough if the offensive line is not cohesive or there is no effective running threat. Now, the team is beginning to find its footing as a group, at just the right time, and the players are feeding off one another. The line manages to provide another second or so of protection, DeMarco Murray is back and providing key running plays to keep the defense honest, and Bryant and the rest of the receivers are getting open for their quarterback.
And Bryant is showing that he is a top-level player that was worth the first-round pick Dallas invested in him. The really good news is that he is still growing as a player and as a human being. The best is yet to come.