IRVING, Texas – There was a clear difference this season from what we had observed in the past with Dez Bryant. He came to OTAs and Mini Camps with much more focus and determination to be better at his craft. His understanding of his responsibilities in the past is what had held him back, but you could see from the opening snap that his 2012 season would be different. There were too many times in previous years where Bryant would disappear, but this season he was able to fight through adversity and play a more complete game.
I really believe that we saw a much more mature player this season in Bryant. I'm not calling him Jerry Rice, but there are situations that he's done a much better job dealing with head on, and you can see it in his play. It doesn't take a scout's eye to see his talent on the field and the pressure he can put on a defense by just understanding his responsibilities. Playing through the last several weeks with the busted index finger is really all you need to know about how important this team and game is to him. Bryant's on a better path. There were times in the past I would have believed that he wasn't going to last another week. This will be another important offseason for Bryant to see if he can build on what he was able to do in 2012, not so much with his physical conditioning, which was much better, but mentally in developing a better plan of attack when it comes to attacking defenses that will try and take him out of games. It's clear that he's the Cowboys most dangerous player and coordinators will not allow him to take over games like he's capable of.
Scouts are taught if they observe a player making a play one time, they should be able to repeat that same play again. It's why scouts have such a hard time giving up on players. There are always those days where you see a player make that play that reminds you why he is one of your 53, which brings me to the evaluation of Miles Austin. Going into this 2012 season there was not a single doubt that Austin was the No. 1 receiver on this team and it wasn't for the amount of money that was on his contract, but that's clearly not the case now. Dez Bryant has become that player that I believed that Austin was going to be. We have yet to see that Austin that grabbed our imagination during that 2009 season. Sure, injury robbed him of games in 2011, but we all expected so much more than a receiver who catches only 57% of the passes thrown his direction the last three seasons. I'm not saying that every pass from Tony Romo was dead solid perfect, but Bryant was at 66% and Witten at 74%. Austin had a terrible period of the season where he went five straight games where he didn't have a single touchdown catch. Here's the problem, for a receiver that we all viewed as this club's top guy, it paints a pretty clear picture why this offense had struggles trying to score points.
There are things that Austin does as a route runner that are special, and it's when he can run those routes inside where he tends to make the majority of his plays. When he can run a slant or square up on a crossing route, he has a much better chance of making a play because he sees the ball better. It's when the ball goes down the field or he has to adjust to its flight that he tends to have the majority of his problems. Austin plays the all-important position of the slot, but I didn't see the type of explosive plays that are needed from that spot. The idea to play him inside was to create mismatches, but there were not nearly enough wins there. For what Jason Garrett and this staff were asking for this season, Miles Austin needed to be a better player, and he wasn't. If this team is going to have success on offense, he can't disappear.
We always talk about growth of players from one year to the next, and other than Dez Bryant and Bruce Carter, Dwayne Harris was that guy. Harris was very similar to Bryant in that his skills were on display during the OTAs and Mini Camps. Harris physically looked different. For a short player, he always had some thickness to him, but when camp opened last summer, he didn't appear as heavy and he played quicker. His routes were solid and his hands dependable. Despite being active all season, it wasn't until the Cleveland game where he got to shine as a receiver and he was able to deliver. To me, there was no surprise about his ability to return punts. I remember studying him at East Carolina, and even though he didn't have great timed speed, he had a real knack for reading blocks and using his vision to get in the open field. I've always been impressed with his toughness and how he's not afraid to stick his nose in there as a point of attack blocker.
Another player that seemed to develop as the season progressed was Cole Beasley. Not in the sense of great stats, but in understanding how this game is played. We all remember the struggles that he went through during training camp when he quit the team but had a change of heart and came back. Beasley's quickness and ability to secure the ball is impressive. His finest hour was against the Redskins on Thanksgiving with seven grabs, but was used very little from that point on. That was surprising because it appeared that the quarterback had confidence in his ability. As we talk about development, keep an eye on Danny Coale and keep tabs on how his off season goes from here. There were three guys that gave the defense trouble on the offensive scout team: James Hanna, Cole Beasley and Danny Coale. I only bring this up because I do remember the day when Romo was a productive player when working against the first defense when he ran the scout team.
I really like the youth of the position with Dez Bryant, Dwayne Harris and Cole Beasley. Where there will most likely be changes is with Kevin Ogletree, who's an unrestricted free agent, and I'd be surprised if he came back. For his production, they could use Harris or Beasley and be just fine.