When people talk about the "talent" the Dallas Cowboys have, they're thinking about certain players in key positions who appear to possess the ability to be great. I have argued (and continue to believe) that the Cowboys don't have as much "talent" on their roster as the narrative traditionally assumes they do. But people continue to buy into that narrative because the highly talented players the Cowboys do have tend to play high-profile positions such as pass-rusher, quarterback and of course, wide receiver.
Which brings me this morning to Dez Bryant, who caught 12 passes for 145 yards and a touchdown in Sunday's comeback victory over the Browns. Those are the kinds of numbers, in a game in which they were desperately needed, that remind you why the Cowboys drafted Bryant in the first round in 2010, and why they've stuck with him through all of the messy troubles of his first three professional seasons.
Bryant hadn't played a game like that since he was an Oklahoma State Cowboy. He caught nine passes for 161 yards and two touchdowns on Sept. 19, 2009 in a 41-24 victory over Rice in what he likely did not know at the time would be his final college game. Suspended for the remainder of that season and accompanied by a battalion of family- and background-related red flags, he remained enticing due to his raw physical ability, and the Cowboys took him with the 24th pick in the 2010 draft.
Since then, the problems have ranged from poorly run routes to dropped touchdown passes to troubles with the law, including a family violence charge this summer stemming from an incident between the 23-year-old Bryant and his 37-year-old mother. It may not be a coincidence that the legal issues surrounding that case were settled a few days before Sunday's game, allowing Bryant to clear his mind and build on what's turning out to be a strong third season. Per Tim MacMahon:
It's been a great two weeks for Bryant, especially considering that he settled his legal issues days ago, getting a slap on the wrist with a conditional dismissal of his Class A misdemeanor family violence case that stemmed from a confrontation with his mother.
All Bryant wants to do is focus on football. The recent results have been fantastic for the Cowboys' third-year receiver.
"I told you I feel like me," Bryant said, referencing comments he made a few weeks ago. "I feel like Dez. I've got a lot of stuff behind me -- I don't want to jump into it -- and I feel great."
If the Cowboys are going to make a serious run at the Giants for the division title -- and with six games to go they sit only one game behind them -- they will need those players on their roster who are capable of greatness to play that way. Bryant was obviously great Sunday, and it was the second week in a row in which he was great. He finds himself, suddenly, on pace for a 91-catch, 1,176-yard season. He's shown improvements in the areas (route-running, etc.) for which he drew criticism over his first two years. To quarterback Tony Romo's credit, he has continued to stick with Bryant, putting in the intensive work and offering the unwavering public and private support that he and the organization know are required to get the best out of Bryant. The past couple of weeks show signs that it's paying off.
Out of the woods? Please. Bryant just turned 24 two weeks ago, and no one's expecting there won't be a step back or two along the maturity spectrum even as progress continues. And it's not lost on Bryant's critics that his big game Sunday came with Joe Haden, the Browns' top cornerback, out of the lineup. Bryant has traditionally dominated lesser competition and disappeared somewhat when matched up against the league's better corners.
But in terms of what's going on right now, and over the next six weeks, the Cowboys are reaching the point at which they can confidently consider Bryant an advantage-altering asset. They don't have a lot of very tough cornerbacks on their remaining schedule, first of all. And as Bryant's confidence and self-assuredness continue to grow with each successful game -- as Romo continues to target him 11, 12, 15 times a game -- the benefits for the Cowboys are likely to keep piling up. This is a rare talent the Cowboys have in Dez Bryant -- the kind of guy who can look like the best player on the field and win you a game that looked lost. That's why they've continued to stand by him and prop him up and give him the support he needs to deal with everything that's gone wrong for him on and off the field over the past three years. If he's really turning a quarter and prepared to reward that support by playing the way they believe he's capable of playing, then Sunday's game may turn out to have been the first in a long line of eye-poppers.