Dez Bryant poised for huge season

IRVING, Texas -- Dez Bryant opened his mouth and the words tumbled forth rapidly with the force of a summer squall.

For a minute. Then two. Then three.

Finally, he took a breath. Then he started talking again. Fast. Then faster.

Bryant's words told the story of a young man pregnant with expectation of stardom. The 25-year-old's words told the tale of a former first-round draft pick's transformation from part-time knucklehead into full-time star through hard work and maturity.

The words are a harbinger for a player poised to turn in the best performance we've ever seen from a Dallas Cowboys receiver. Better than the best year Bob Hayes ever had. Or Drew Pearson. More impressive than any season Michael Irvin put together. Terrell Owens, too.

Irvin set the franchise record for receptions (111) and yards (1,605) in 1995 and Owens established the team record for touchdowns in 2007 with 15. Bryant will go at least one better in all of those categories this season, which means all he needs is an additional 20 catches for 224 yards and four touchdowns added onto 2012's total.

Why will he reach those numbers?

Bryant's mental acumen is merging with his physical talent.

We saw a glimpse of what he could do last season when he caught 92 balls for 1,382 yards and 12 touchdowns. He was one of just four receivers to finish among NFL's top 10 in yards, receptions and touchdowns. The others: Chicago's Brandon Marshall, Denver's Demaryius Thomas and Cincinnati's A.J. Green. Bryant scored eight touchdowns of more than 20 yards this season. No other receiver had more than five.

Just like Tony Romo is forever linked with Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman because they represent the standard at quarterback for us, well, Hayes, Irvin and Pearson set the standard for Cowboys receivers.

Bryant is ready to join them.

He has spent the offseason improving his conditioning so he can run routes in the fourth quarter with the same intensity as he does in the first quarter. That means at least an hour on the stepmill most Sunday evenings and route running at a neighborhood middle school on Sunday afternoons.

In Tuesday's practice, he took every pass he caught during team drills to the end zone and then jogged back to the line of scrimmage. All of it designed to improve his conditioning.

He has also been studying Jerry Rice's slant-and-go and Irvin's skinny post.

"Oh my God! You should see the way Jerry runs that thing," Bryant says, his voice rising. "Let me show you. Jerry doesn't just take a step inside, he takes two hard steps inside and -- check this out -- he turns his head to look for the ball, which really sells the slant. Then he plants hard, cuts back out and it's a wrap. Steve Young just lofts it up there, Jerry gets it and he's gone. I'm trying to perfect that route because he runs it so smooth. That's the kind of stuff I've been working on."

That's the kind of subtle, detailed execution required to transform a good receiver into a great one.

We're talking about a player whose receptions have increased from 45 to 63 to 92 while his yards have increased from 561 to 928 to 1,382. Bryant had one 100-yard performance in his first 30 games, but had five in his last 13 games last season, including a 224-yard, two touchdown performance against New Orleans.

It would be fine, really, if Bryant was satisfied with that. He's not.

Bryant wants more.

He's taking whatever new receivers coach Derek Dooley can give him. Bryant is improving his route running, the way he handles press coverage, the way he comes off the line of scrimmage, ensuring he uses the same intensity, pace and footwork every snap.

And whether he's the primary receiver is irrelevant.


All Bryant wants is for every route to look the same when he gets ready to make his initial move. Then the defensive back finds himself at Bryant's mercy. The problem: Bryant has none.

"He's improved so much. You can tell," cornerback Brandon Carr said. "He's working on all the little things in practice. He's focused on the details and he's getting better and better. I'm glad I don't have to cover him in games this season."

Bryant has even altered the way he runs deep routes.

"A lot of times when you're trying to create separation, the DB will lean his shoulder into you and you'll lean yours into him," Bryant said. "Coach Dooley told me to quit doing that. He says just keep running and you'll get on top of him because he's leaning and running and you're just running. I've been trying it in practice, and it works."

One theory suggests Bryant won't post huge numbers this season because the presence of tight end Jason Witten, receiver Miles Austin and a renewed emphasis on the running game will affect his production.

Don't believe it.

The year Irvin set the record for receptions and yards, Emmitt Smith rushed for 1,773 yards and a then NFL-record 25 touchdowns.

Garrett is an intelligent man. His future depends on getting the ball into the hands of his best offensive player.

On this team, Bryant is that guy.