- Dan Graziano, ESPN Staff Writer
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It was on July 16 of last year that Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant was arrested on a misdemeanor domestic violence charge involving his mother. I bring this up not to call attention to a negative but rather to point out the extent to which perception of Bryant has changed in the past 11 months. In the wake of that arrest (still the only one of Bryant's life, by the way), there were people calling for the Cowboys to rid themselves of their talented young star. Didn't matter that he was the 23-year-old product of a family situation so inadequate as to defy his critics' comprehension. He was a headache, the story went, and the Cowboys would be better off without him.
Oh, but now... now it's all different, isn't it? Now, Bryant is a guy who put up 1,382 yards and 12 touchdowns on 92 catches and played the final few games of the season with a broken finger. Now, you don't hear anything about headaches. The discussion about Bryant now is whether he can break records. And his teammates, who like the Cowboys' organization itself, were unfailingly supportive throughout last summer, are talking up big possibilities. This is cornerback Morris Claiborne, per the Dallas Morning News:
"You notice a difference in Dez going against him every day,” said Claiborne, speaking at Brandon Carr’s celebrity softball game on Saturday. “He’s getting better."
Better than 92 for 1,382 and 12? Oh, it's possible. Bryant's talent, his quarterback, the offense in which he plays, the quality of the receiver on the other side of the field... all of these things line up to create an ideal situation in which he can be as great as he decides to be. Health is tricky, as it is for almost everyone in this league, but at 24 Bryant is still learning all aspects of the game, including how to take care of himself on the field. It's possible that improves along with his numbers as he enters his prime.
It's the off-the-field stuff that has always been the concern with Bryant, which is why the five weeks between now and the start of Cowboys training camp are his most important five weeks of the year. What you as a Cowboys fan want from Bryant for these next five weeks is complete radio silence. You don't want to hear his name in any other context than "In which round of your fantasy draft should you pick him?"
People in the Cowboys' building will tell you Bryant's never caused them a problem on the field or in the locker room and that their concern with him has always been what happens when he's away from the team and on his own. This was the impetus, post-arrest, for the "Dez rules" that established a round-the-clock security setup for Bryant during the season last year and established parameters for where he could and could not go in his free time. These were an object of ridicule when they were discovered and reported, but in retrospect they serve as evidence that Bryant wants to set and keep the proper priorities and isn't content with a life in which his off-field issues keep him from becoming the player he wants to be on the field.
A reputation is a mustard stain. It won't come out, no matter how much you scrub it. Bryant can behave himself flawlessly for the next five years but if he gets in trouble again in 2019 everyone will say, "See? Same old Dez." The only way for Bryant to keep his old reputation from being thrown back in his face is for him to avoid all off-field issues completely, or to control them so they don't flare up in a public way, for the rest of his career. That's not fair, and it's a tall task, and it's impossible to say with confidence whether it's something he can or will do.
I'll say this, though: Last July, I wrote that people who were calling for Bryant to be released were off-base and that the Cowboys' responsibility was to help Bryant manage his issues. It was also Bryant's responsibility to identify those issues and find ways to keep them from affecting him negatively. It appears that, over the past 11 months, those things have happened and that Bryant is in a better place in his life. He himself has indicated as much in interviews, and obviously with his on-field performance. The next five weeks are the next big test of whether Bryant has turned a corner in his off-field life and can continue to look with optimism at a blindingly bright football future. The key is to make sure his name stays out of the news. And while no one can predict whether he can pull it off, at this point it wouldn't be fair to be surprised if he did.