Commentary

Dez Bryant 'just getting started'

Receiver among biggest reasons why playoff hopes still in Cowboys' grasp

Updated: December 3, 2012, 2:57 PM ET
By Tim MacMahon | ESPNDallas.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- For all Jason Garrett's rhetoric about the importance of stocking the Dallas Cowboys roster with the "right kind of guys," his job security might rest in the hands of a guy with a reputation for being one of the NFL's biggest knuckleheads.

The Cowboys' playoff hopes -- alive but still slim after Sunday night's 38-33 win over the Philadelphia Eagles -- definitely rely heavily on Dez Bryant.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. At all.

Right now there isn't a better player on the roster. The reformed knucklehead receiver -- or the guy who has at least done a lot of growing up recently -- is one of the biggest reasons the Cowboys have any hope of surviving this regular season.

[+] EnlargeDez Bryant
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireIn just the past four games, Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant has caught 29 passes for 475 yards and six touchdowns.

The Dez discussion is no longer dominated by unfulfilled potential. It's all about his Pro Bowl-caliber production now.

Look what the dude has done while the Cowboys won three of the last four games. His sick numbers in that span: 29 catches for 475 yards and six touchdowns.

The Cowboys, who have to win out to give themselves a really good chance of making the playoffs, desperately need Bryant to keep being that kind of beast. They're depending on consistent Dez dominance.

Bryant, who still sees himself sort of as an underclassman in a huddle with seniors such as Tony Romo, Jason Witten and Miles Austin, won't go so far as to say the Cowboys need him to be a superstar. However, he readily acknowledges that they need him to play his best down the stretch ... and doesn't believe he's hit that level yet.

"That's what I'm going to do," Bryant said after his six-catch, 98-yard, two-touchdown performance against the Eagles. "We're just getting started."

There's a pretty obvious trend with the Cowboys' offense recently: It starts clicking when Bryant gets the ball. It's a mystery why that didn't happen Sunday night until 2:14 remained in the second quarter, when Bryant made a ridiculous one-handed catch by the sideline to keep the Cowboys' first touchdown drive alive, but he dominated when he got his chances.

Bryant caught all six balls Romo threw him Sunday night. All six were impact plays on scoring drives, including two tackle-breaking touchdowns.

"Dez is growing before our eyes," Garrett said.

That Bryant remained focused and kept his composure despite being ignored for the first 27-plus minutes is evidence of his maturation. In the past, the NBC cameras probably would have caught some compelling, controversial footage of Bryant frustration being vented on the sideline.

Not Sunday night. Bryant, who is more at peace in his too-often chaotic personal life than ever, remained patient and pounced when opportunities presented themselves.

"I know when my number is called, hey, I'm going to do my job," said Bryant, who has already set new career highs with 71 catches for 978 yards and is a touchdown shy of his 2011 total of nine. "I knew it was going to come, and it did."

Bryant didn't just do his job. Along with Romo, he put the Cowboys on his back in a must-win game when the Dallas defense was absolutely dreadful.

The diving, one-handed catch on third down made the Cowboys' first touchdown possible. He scored Dallas' second touchdown when he caught a pass near the line of scrimmage and made a few Eagles miss en route to the 23-yard score. With the Cowboys trailing in the fourth quarter, Bryant beat Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie's press coverage and caught a deep ball for a 35-yard gain despite taking a hit from safety Kurt Coleman. Bryant finished that drive by bulling through Rodgers-Cromartie for a 6-yard go-ahead score.

Need a big play? Just dial up 88.

Just like the good ol' days with Drew Pearson and Michael Irvin.

The question is no longer whether the Cowboys can count on Bryant. It's how they can get the ball in his hands more often.

That's should be one of the top priorities for Garrett, whose job will be in serious jeopardy if the Cowboys fail to make the playoffs for the third consecutive season, especially if Sean Payton doesn't agree to a new contract with the New Orleans Saints.

Having said that, Garrett should get a lot of the credit for the remarkable recent progress shown by Bryant, the freakish talent whom most of the NFL passed in the 2010 draft due to off-field concerns stemming from his dysfunctional upbringing.

Garrett, along with receivers coach Jimmy Robinson and Romo, hammered into Bryant's head the importance of doing the little things right. They stuck with it even when it seemed like he'd never get it, such as when his busted hot route resulted in a pick-six during his mistake-marred performance in the loss to the Chicago Bears.

That's all paying off now. So is the counseling that Jerry Jones (and later the Dallas district attorney) demanded Bryant undergo after his summer arrest for an alleged physical confrontation with his mother, a charge that will be dismissed if he stays out of trouble for a year.

"He's being noticeably dedicated, noticeably committed if you want to compare it to months ago or at least two years ago," Jones said. "It's showing. It's showing on and off the field for him."

Bryant is blossoming into the gamebreaker the Cowboys hoped they'd get when they gambled by trading up to take him with the 24th overall pick a couple of drafts ago.

He's close to putting himself in conversations about the NFL's elite receivers, although he points out that those kinds of questions are still premature.

"Come back and ask me that question after the season," Bryant said. "Ask me that question after this season."

Bryant's performance in these final four games will answer a lot of questions, perhaps including the big one about his head coach's future.

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