- Tim MacMahon, ESPN Staff Writer
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This isn't about numbers, although Bryant has produced like an All-Pro recently, catching 34 passes for 584 yards and eight touchdowns while the Cowboys have won five of the past six games to emerge as legitimate playoff contenders.
It's about being the kind of dude that teammates can depend on, as long as the doctors allow him on the field. It's about being a guy who sacrifices for the greater good.
With his mere presence in the Cowboys' huddle Sunday, Bryant proved that he's the type of player who can be a foundation piece for a winning franchise. The fact that he played a significant role in the Cowboys' 27-24 overtime win was almost a bonus.
Every single player and coach on the Cowboys' sideline knew that Bryant needed surgery to fix his fractured left index finger. They were all well aware that he delayed the operation because the Cowboys were fighting for a playoff berth and he felt he needed to be a part of it. And they were all inspired.
"There was no way he was going to be stopped from playing in this ballgame and helping our football team," coach Jason Garrett said. "When you're a coach and you're a player and a guy has that determination and shows that mental and physical toughness for playing, it's contagious. Beyond that, he makes a ton of plays."
Quarterback Tony Romo paid Bryant what he considers the highest form of praise: "He's a football player, isn't he?"
Bryant didn't just play with that fractured finger protected by a splint, pretending that the pain didn't exist. He made a major contribution to the Cowboys' third consecutive win, catching four passes for 59 yards and a touchdown to extend his scoring streak to six consecutive games, not to mention drawing defensive attention that opened up opportunities for teammates.
When you're a coach and you're a player and a guy has that determination and shows that mental and physical toughness for playing, it's contagious.
”-- Jason Garrett on Dez Bryant
"He's in that fraternity of tough guys," tight end Jason Witten said. "That's not easy to do what he did."
Consider the source of that ultimate compliment.
Witten, a 10-year veteran, has missed a grand total of one game in his career. He has played with a broken jaw and broken ribs, among other ailments. He searched far and wide for a doctor who would tell him his lacerated spleen had recovered so he could play in this season's opener.
Oh, and Romo is the quarterback who fought through the pain of a punctured lung and fractured rib to lead a Cowboys comeback last season, then played several weeks with the rib still healing.
Those are Bryant's role models. They're the veterans who have helped mold him, sticking with him through his off-field missteps and on-field mistakes. They're now his peers, as he has proven himself capable of being a pillar for this franchise.
"I can't thank them enough," Bryant said. "I know my situation and everything that I try to get through. They [have] seen the good in me and they helped me show it. They never turned their back on me. I can't thank them enough."
As far as Romo and Witten are concerned, Bryant's 24-yard touchdown pass on a back-shoulder fade in the third quarter wasn't the most impressive thing about his performance.
They expect big plays from one of the most physically gifted players ever to put on a Cowboys uniform.
The progress, the proof that Bryant really is getting it, doesn't come in the moments that make the highlight shows. It's evident from the fact that Bryant is repeatedly doing the right things.
The renowned knucklehead really is developing into a reliable, dependable receiver.
"He's starting to play really, really good, sound football," Romo said after throwing for 341 yards and two touchdowns on 30-of-42 passing in the victory. "Doing the things it takes to win football games. His development has been great to see.
"I know that you go by catches and yards and touchdowns, but I go by how many times he does the right thing, makes the right choice, runs the right route, the depth he's at, the timing that he came out, his ability to read the coverage. There's a lot of stuff involved and he didn't do as well in the beginning of the year, but he's really come on as of lately."
At the risk of sounding like Garrett, it has been a process for Bryant.
He has made more than his share of boneheaded mistakes -- in and out of uniform -- but his passion and toughness have never been questioned. With childhood challenges that have been well chronicled, Bryant arrived at Valley Ranch with the maturity of a middle school kid and has grown into a pro.
"Obviously, there have been some challenging situations that he's been in that he's had to learn from, but I was proud of him tonight," said Witten, who had five catches for 43 yards and a touchdown in the win. "Not only fighting through the injury -- that's not easy to do, playing with a broken finger at receiver -- but being able to play without practicing in the week and knowing his assignments, knowing his sight adjustments. I was proud of him. He really stepped up."
Bryant has stepped up on a regular basis recently.
That's what franchise cornerstones do.