The Cowboys’ 2012 season ended with Dez Bryant leaving FedEx Field with back spasms so bad that he had to be taken out by wheelchair. After spending the night in a D.C.-area hospital following the game, Bryant had to have finger surgery on the broken digit he had played with the final four games of the season.
But even that wasn’t enough to slow down the third-year receiver, whose breakout season allowed the 8-8 Cowboys even to be in a Week 17 game with the NFC East on the line. Bryant finished the season with 92 catches, 1,382 receiving yards and had a seven-game TD streak through Week 16, during which the Cowboys were 5-2.
At times, he and Tony Romo carried the offense. For that, Bryant was named the Pro Football Weekly/Pro Football Writers of America Most Improved Player.
“Dez has continued to improve throughout this year for a few very obvious reasons,” Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett told PFW. “First, he loves to play the game and he loves to compete. In addition to that, he has learned how to practice better, how to dedicate himself to learning everything that goes on from a preparation standpoint — both mentally and physically.”
Bryant had only two TDs through Week Nine and had a frustrating cap to the 29-24 loss to the Giants when his apparent game-winning TD catch was nullified when replays showed his pinky touching out of bounds.
But starting with that game, Bryant began to get hot. Hotter than almost any wideout in the game at that point. He started that seven-game scoring streak with a big touchdown against the Eagles and scored nine more times through the end of the season. Included in that run were two 145-yard games and a 224-yard tour de force against the Saints in Week 16.
Bryant dropped fewer passes, ran cleaner routes and finally appeared to realize what everyone previously had seen in him in doses: That most times he’s the most talented player on the field. Put it all together and you can officially say that Bryant — despite not being named to the Pro Bowl — is an elite wideout.
“He still has room to continue to improve, but he has done a lot of things this year that have improved his confidence and the confidence that his teammates have in him,” Garrett said.
It’s easy to forget that Bryant just turned 24 years old in November and that things didn’t appear to be headed the right way around midseason.
Romo and Bryant appeared to be using two different playbooks. Romo’s frustration with his receiver was becoming quite obvious, even as Romo tried his best not to show up Bryant or say anything bad about him.
Typically, it was a mental mistake, the most glaring of which came in Week Four against the Bears. Bryant had a good statistical game, with eight catches for 105 yards, but he cost his team at least seven points with a miscommunication on a route that turned into a pick-six for Bears CB Charles Tillman. It was an option route — Bryant ran a deep route, Romo was thinking it should have been a curl based on the coverage — and Bryant chose poorly.
Later in the game, as the Cowboys were trying to come back from a 27-10 deficit, Bryant’s illegal shift penalty wiped out a positive gain by RB DeMarco Murray and cost his team five yards. Two plays later, Romo was picked off to drive a stake in the Cowboys’ chances.
Given all of Bryant’s off-field issues, many wondered if he ever could mature and become the player his talent suggested. He grew up in a troubled household, living in eight different homes along the way. He was sued for nearly $1 million dollars in legal fees and the cost of jewelry a merchant said Bryant failed to pay for. And Bryant was arrested this offseason for misdemeanor family violence in an incident that involved his mother. The charges were later dropped, but the Cowboys’ concern grew.
Still, somewhere along the way this season, Bryant figured it out. He appeared to eliminate distractions, play at an extremely high level and show incredible toughness. When owner Jerry Jones suggested that Bryant’s finger might need a bone graft from his hip, Bryant rejected the notion.
“This finger, it’s just mental toughness, that’s all,” Bryant said. “If I felt like it was going to bring me down, I probably couldn’t be out here doing what I’m doing. But I don’t think about it as much. I don’t feel the pain after. I just go out there and play football.”
All he did the next game was put up 224 yards against the Saints. Bryant never had more than 104 in a game entering the season. It got to the point where when the Cowboys didn’t throw to Bryant in every key situation in a game, it raised eyebrows.
That was especially true in the final game of the season, with the division title on the line. Bryant had roasted the Redskins on Thanksgiving for eight catches, 145 yards and two TDs, including an 85-yarder that was a career long and helped bring the Cowboys back from a 28-3 deficit before losing. The question all week heading into the game was who would cover Dez? DeAngelo Hall shadowed him the entire game, and though he was credited with shutting down Bryant, the ailing Cowboys star still caught four passes for 71 yards.
But better things lie ahead, assuming Bryant can stay healthy and keep maturing and Romo remains in peak form.
“When you combine all of those things with his immense natural physical talent, you have a young player that you can be very excited about,” Garrett said.