OXNARD, Calif. – When Dez Bryant spoke in years past about the most influential offensive leaders on the team, the names Tony Romo, Jason Witten and Miles Austin seemed like they were in a separate category.
Now, as Bryant enters his fourth season in the league and perhaps his first as the undisputed most dynamic offensive threat for the Cowboys, he knows it's come to a point in his career and life that he's prepared to become one of those veteran leaders young players can turn to.
"I think there's no backward for me," Bryant said. "I feel like I've got a set road here to lead by example, doing all the right things. Me being in that role to make sure these new guys are doing the right things, not only on the field, but off the field. I take that to heart."
Even Bryant will admit that attitude may not have been there when he started his career. It may not have even been there a season ago.
He said he didn't start feeling like himself until the middle of last year, when the incident with his mother was behind him and the charges were conditionally dismissed. After that, he said, "everything was on the right path."
Following a quiet offseason, it appears that's the case. He's content with his life, moving far enough in a year both personally and professionally to start making an impact on others. That's a positive for the Cowboys, because he's slowly becoming a face of the franchise, one that young players were going to look to, regardless.
"I'm doing everything that I'm supposed to," Bryant said. "It doesn't feel like I'm structured and I've got to do this, I'm doing it out of my own heart. This is the type of guy that I am. I'm not a bad guy.
"I feel like I owe it to these guys just coming in. I feel like if somebody goes out and does something bad and I know I had a shot to let them know what to do and they did wrong, I'll put that on me. I feel like I take full advantage of making sure everybody's doing what they're supposed to be doing."
Bryant's come a long way in his own right, but he also credits the people who helped him along the way. Head coach Jason Garrett and owner/general manager Jerry Jones have said they're proud of his development, and Bryant gives major credit to the coaches and Cowboys' officials around him who put him in a position to succeed.
"They stuck their neck out for me and they stayed with me," Bryant said. "When there were times I didn't understand certain things, they did their best to help me."
He said the times they stuck with him have rubbed off, and he wants to return the favor. Everything he's learned from coaches and the older veterans, including defensive players such as DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher, has helped him become a better person and determined him to give the same advice to pass along to rookies just now coming up.
He gives a lot of credit to his head coach, and now he's even starting to sound like him.
"It's all about putting days together," Bryant said. "That's what it is with me. You go out, you work hard, you forget about that, you come back and do the same thing over and over and over again."
It's clear the player the Cowboys drafted has come a long way. Garrett said it's technically a risk drafting any player regardless of his background, since a team can never predict with certainty how any pick will turn out. He felt confident Bryant was a good person who could use direction and resources that he felt the Cowboys had.
"I don't even want to use the word risk with him," Garrett said. "He is no greater risk than anybody else."
The trick for Bryant has always been consistency, but that's becoming less of an issue. He turned into the most consistent receiver down the stretch of last season.
"We're real proud of Dez, the approach that he has taken, his consistency in meetings, walkthroughs, on the practice field," Garrett said. "It has a lot to do with maturity he's made as a person. It reflects in his play. When you're doing those things and doing things the right way, there is no way you can't gain confidence. When a guy like that has confidence to add to his ability, he really becomes a heck of a player."
It's probably not a coincidence that each year his numbers have jumped dramatically and are directly correlated with his comfort level off the field. Based on the last few seasons, it would surprise no one if he reaches the 1,500-yard or 15-touchdown mark this year.
Bryant said he's doing what he loves. He doesn't want anything to happen that could jeopardize his ability to step on a football field. Even a finger injury that many thought would sideline him for the rest of the season didn't stop the receiver from finishing out the year.
In his mind, no player can be great without loving the game. Bryant practices as hard as he plays, sometimes to a fault. He missed a small portion of Friday's practice with cramps, but he jogged off the field and appeared to be fine. Missing any practice time is a rare occurrence for the receiver. [embedded_ad]
"Truth be told, I love this game so much, even if we weren't getting paid, I'd still probably be out in a set of football pads, because that's what I love to do," he said. "You've got to have a strong passion to be great. You just can't come out here and goof off and then expect to be good."
There may have been questions about Bryant coming up, but his love for the game has never been one. Now, the other questions about him coming up are slowly dissipating as well.