ARLINGTON — Dez Bryant is listening. And learning.
A month into his second season with the Dallas Cowboys, Bryant has become more than a well-intentioned kid who keeps getting into trouble. He’s becoming more of a professional.
He understands what’s required from him and what the consequences are if he doesn’t live up to those requirements. He’s showing up on time for meetings and practices. He knows his playbook and runs crisp routes.
The fun part is when the ball comes his way. Big and strong, fast and elusive, Bryant believes he can score every time he touches the ball.
“That’s the way you’re supposed to play football,” he says.
That’s also why Bryant was so upset with himself early in the last preseason game.
Tony Romo threw a simple pass that Bryant had to only squeeze and turn upfield for a first down. Yet Bryant took his eye off the ball, looking for room to run before he actually made the catch. The pass clanked off his hands, sending him to the sideline, seething.
His new position coach, Jimmy Robinson, saw the fit and went to defuse it.
“Hey,” Robinson told Bryant, “that’s your one drop for the year.”
Bryant liked that. Talking about it after the game, he vowed, “It will not happen again.”
It’s unrealistic, of course, but it says something about the growth and maturity the Cowboys are hoping to see from Bryant, especially after his wayward summer — a dizzying series of incidents involving jewelry, lawsuits, baggy pants and mall security guards — left some wondering whether he’d ever get his act together.
Management had enough faith to clear a starting job for him by releasing Roy Williams. They also took the calculated risk of bringing in Robinson as Bryant’s new mentor. The risk was that Bryant had become close with his position coach, Ray Sherman. The calculation was that coach Jason Garrett has known Robinson for more than a decade and was sure he’d be up to the challenge.
It helps that Robinson has an impressive list of receivers who have thrived under his tutelage: Marvin Harrison, Andre Rison, Amani Toomer, Ike Hilliard, Joe Horn and the guys from Green Bay who won the Super Bowl last year, with Robinson as part of that staff.
Indeed, Robinson and Bryant have hit it off quite well. It’s evident in the way Bryant tries to absorb every piece of advice Robinson shares with him on the practice field.
“He wants to be coached, he wants to learn,” Robinson said. “He wants to know exactly what it is that we want him to be doing, that I want him to be doing. I think he’s hungry to learn it and hungry to do it the right way.”
His willingness to improve extends off the field, too. Coaches and teammates are doing all they can to help, first because they genuinely like Bryant, but also because they realize what a huge role he can play on this team.
Then again, others have tried to help Bryant before, and it hasn’t always clicked. Maybe now that the stakes are higher, it’s finally happening.
“He’s doing a better job with being where he’s supposed to be, on time, and those types of things,” Robinson said. “But it’s a day-to-day process. It doesn’t happen overnight. I don’t expect that it’s gonna. Sometimes you take a couple of steps forward and one step back. So you grab the young man and you hug him and you say, ‘Hey, listen now. This is something you’ve gotta do different. This is where we need to improve.’ You do that day after day after day. You develop that trust, hopefully him in you and then you start to develop it in him.”
Tight end Jason Witten sees an improvement, too.
Witten said Bryant used to get by on sheer talent, treating practices and games as if he were playing in the backyard. Through nearly a month of training camp, which wrapped up Thursday, Witten was impressed with Bryant “being where he’s supposed to be and doing what he’s supposed to do.”
“He’s walked into a situation where he’s taken a lot of responsibility and expectations,” Witten said. “Nobody works harder than him. And the accountability off the field — in the meeting rooms and walkthroughs, I think he’s done a fantastic job. ... There’s a consistency that he brings. I’ve been really impressed. He’s going to be a big part of this offense and this team.”
As an undisciplined rookie, Bryant caught 45 passes for 561 yards and four touchdowns, with two more touchdown on punt returns. He did that in just 12 games, missing the last four with an ankle injury that’s fully healed. He also did it without the benefit of a preseason and without having played much his previous year in college because of another off-the-field mess with the NCAA.
All young players usually make a big jump from their first to second year in the NFL, but they also usually have the benefit of being around the team facility. The lockout prevented Bryant from doing that, so his re-education has come during training camp.
“He’s making progress,” Robinson said. “But it’s not perfect. I don’t expect that it’s going to be. It’s a growing process.”