It’s been about three weeks since Tony Romo said on local radio that Dez Bryant had done a “180” in terms of his preparation for games. Those words seemed pretty hollow in light of the fact that Bryant had never been the picture of consistency during his first three years in the league.
But it turns out Romo may have been on to something. Bryant, who has made as many headlines off the field as on, is in the midst of the best stretch of his career. He basically took over the game in the second half of Sunday’s 38-33 win over the Eagles. And while it’s important to factor in the pitiful state of the Eagles’ secondary, it was still impressive to watch Bryant overwhelm defenders with precise routes and a punishing style.
Head coach Jason Garrett was most impressed that Bryant went “north and south” instead of trying to dance for yardage. On his 23-yard touchdown, Bryant caught the ball across the middle and then used his speed to dart into the end zone. And on his second touchdown, he caught a pass in the flat and then steamrolled through Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Over the past four games, Bryant has 29 catches for 475 yards and six touchdowns.
And maybe it’s no coincidence that his season took off once charges were conditionally dropped in a family abuse case. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has been cautiously optimistic that Bryant is making progress in his personal life. But what he’s doing on the field has made this offense a lot more potent.
“Dez is growing before our eyes,” said Garrett, who isn’t prone to such expressions.
Garrett was likely referring to how Bryant kept his composure while only being targeted once in the first half. In the past, that sort of thing has caused Bryant to react angrily on the sideline. But he remained patient and took full advantage when the Eagles committed more defenders to stop the run in the second half.
Appearing on our KESN-FM 103.3 afternoon show Monday, the Original 88 Drew Pearson said the next step for Bryant is to start making plays against double coverage. Pearson said that he and Roger Staubach actually preferred when defenders tried to “bracket” him with a safety and cornerback.
Bryant attributes much of his recent success to being on the same page as Romo. Earlier in the season, Bryant’s failure to adjust to coverages led to a couple interceptions (see the Bears loss). But Romo has continued to feed him the ball, and Bryant is starting to become the closer for this Cowboys offense. One Cowboys staffer suggested Tuesday that Romo has become better at predicting where Bryant will end up on a play-by-play basis.
Maybe wide receivers coach Jimmy Robinson, who earned a Super Bowl ring in that role with the Packers, is finally getting through to Bryant. Someone within the organization suggested to me recently that Robinson didn’t hold much “sway” on the staff. But you could see that he and Bryant were constantly engaged in conversation during Sunday’s game.
It’s actually smart of Jones not to prematurely say that Bryant’s off-field issues are behind him. He seems to flourish as long as he has the structure of practice and games. It’s that downtime in the offseason that seems to pose the biggest problem.
“He’s being noticeably dedicated, noticeably committed if you want to compare it to months ago or at least two years ago,” Jones told reporters Sunday. “It’s showing. It’s showing on and off the field for him.”
In a lot of ways, this felt like a make-or-break season for Bryant. Everyone knows he’s one of the more athletic players in the league, but he needed to learn how to compete all the way through games. And as Jones pointed out many times, he had to learn how to have the proper conditioning.
It’s probably not a great sign that he had to head to the locker room Sunday for IV fluids at one point, but he was able to take over the game in the second half. And with this defense running on fumes and Rob Ryan’s oddball scheme, the Cowboys will continue to lean on Bryant down the stretch.
For the first time in three years, that doesn’t sound like such a bad plan.