SAN ANTONIO — A week into Dallas Cowboys training camp, Dez Bryant is everywhere.
Catching deep passes. Returning punts. Taking passes and punts into the end zone with his arms up, drawing loud ovations from thousands of adoring fans, many wearing his No. 88.
Now he’s talking to Miles Austin, getting pointers on technique. He’s giving Austin pointers on strutting in the end zone. He surprises himself by helping rookies understand what to do on certain routes.
When practice ends, Bryant remains the center of attention, either in a cluster of reporters or working his way along the side of the field signing autographs and posing for pictures.
After a bizarre year on and off the field — make that, several such years — Bryant couldn’t be more comfortable. The injury that cut short his rookie season has healed, the Cowboys have carved a spot for him in the starting lineup and, best of all, he’s controversy-free.
He’s also working hard to keep it that way.
In recent days, he’s talked about his fondness for shoes without saying how many he has or how much they cost. Asked whether kids in East Texas, where he grew up, should be allowed to wear sagging pants in public, he opted to stay out of that debate. And, even though he’s now classified as a veteran, he won’t even consider taking part in hazing rookies; he won’t expect anyone to carry his pads.
“All I know is I’m here in San Antonio, focused on football,” Bryant said. “It’s all about that star.”
Bryant is a phenomenal talent who’s been mostly a tease because something always gets in the way, often of his own doing.
He’s made headlines for his mother’s former line of employment, for not carrying an older teammate’s shoulder pads, for picking up a dinner tab that cost more than many Americans make in a year, for wearing sagging pants at an upscale mall and for failing to pay the bills on excessive jewelry purchases. And that’s just the last 15 months. His football sins have included being routinely late to meetings and, admittedly, not knowing his playbook as well as he should.
Bryant is trying to bring the focus back to what he can do once a football gets into his hands. Teammates, coaches and fans are certainly rooting for him.
“I’ve got to make sure everything is right on point,” Bryant said. “I’ve got Miles Austin and some of the other older guys helping me because I know they’re counting on me. ... I don’t want to let nobody down. Not coach Garrett, not anybody in the whole organization. I want to make sure by the time preseason comes, I know what to do.”
In 12 games last season, Bryant caught 45 passes for 561 yards and six touchdowns. He scored twice more on punt returns, in only 12 attempts, and averaged a team-best 24.4 yards per kickoff return.
It’s even more impressive considering he hardly played his last year of college because of an NCAA suspension (for lying about a dinner with Deion Sanders) and because an injury wiped out his entire preseason. His season ended in early December when he broke an ankle on a kickoff return.
He continued his recovery during the lockout, and continued building his troubled reputation. During the one-day reprieve from the labor woes, when players were allowed at team headquarters, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was looking forward to chatting with Bryant, but he didn’t show up.
Bryant eventually sat down with team leaders, which may have been a turning point. By all accounts, he’s cleaning up the issues in his personnel life and he’s embracing his role as a key member of the offense. He became an unquestioned starter last week, when Dallas released Roy Williams.
“I feel like I matured as a man,” Bryant said. “Everything is behind me. If it’s not taken care of, it’s going to get taken care of. I’m here, I’m focused on football ... being on time and being accountable and making sure that your coaches and teammates can trust in you. That’s the challenge I’m putting on myself.”
Bryant’s knowledge of the offense can be hit-or-miss.
During team drills Sunday, he took off up the field when Tony Romo expected him to recognize a blitz and break off his route short and toward the sideline. A wayward, sideways pass made Bryant’s mistake obvious.
On Monday, however, Romo signaled a route change and Bryant picked it up, leading to a long touchdown. Bryant took care of his quarterback by chasing down linebacker DeMarcus Ware after an interception and popping the ball free.
“He’s a guy who we believe could continue to grow and grow as a player,” coach Jason Garrett said. “He plays with great passion, emotion and enthusiasm. Anybody who watches him play can see that. We as coaches love that. We believe that teammates love that. That’s what we want in our football players. So when you go about it the way he has and you are as talented as he is, now he gets more of an opportunity, there is no reason for us to think he can’t continue to get better.”
Garrett acknowledges that Bryant “has a long way to go in terms of understanding our system and a long way technically,” but is quick to add that everyone can improve in those areas.
“Hopefully,” Garrett said, “the results will speak for themselves.”