"This is the point Dez Bryant has to understand: This serves no purpose. If I'm the coach of the Cowboys, you have to get this under control – this temper tantrum. I don't know what else to call it. Dez Bryant, want to help your team? Grow up."
Those were the words of Fox color analyst Brian Billick during the third quarter of the Cowboys' loss to the Detroit Lions in Week 8, as the Super Bowl-winning, former Baltimore Ravens head coach observed from the press box, perhaps 75 yards away, while the Cowboys receiver slammed down his helmet and began to gesture and scream at quarterback Tony Romo following a failed drive. Without knowing what Bryant was saying, Billick and most of the millions watching around the country rushed quickly to a tidy, prepackaged conclusion based on the 25-year-old's demeanor and their preconceived notions of him.
Dez Bryant is a problem child. He is selfish. Just look at him.
Fair or not, this is the role in which Bryant has been cast by a huge portion of the national media and football fans everywhere.
"I wasn't hurt by it because he doesn't know me. He doesn't know me," Bryant said recently, looking back on Billick's comments during a quiet afternoon between meetings at the team facility. "If he knew where I was, I'm pretty sure he would say something totally different. He was just going based off what he thought. And that's that. I just think I'm a target to most people, especially in the media. For what reason? I don't know.
"I can't be caught up in what people are saying. The majority of the time, it's a bunch of he-said, she-said."
Bryant is determined to prove his doubters wrong. Whether or not the perception of him as a ticking time bomb is deserved, it does exist. The question is can he outgrow or overcome it? He will pile up catches, yards and touchdown receptions, and surely be a very good or great player for years to come, but can Bryant ever be treated as just that, nothing more, nothing less? It is, in some ways, the most interesting aspect in the continuing ascension to stardom of an athlete who may already be the current face of the Cowboys franchise.
Drew Pearson, the Ring of Honor Cowboys receiver who played for the team from 1973-83, setting a standard of excellence for that No. 88 jersey now worn by Bryant, was around long enough to see the position begin to take on its unique personality. Teammate Butch Johnson, along with Houston's Billy "White Shoes" Johnson and other contemporaries, became the first to popularize elaborate end zone celebrations. However, it wasn't until NFL offenses began to lean more heavily on the passing game that receivers were able to achieve a new level of fame, which has evolved, on some level, into infamy.
"It was a running back's game back then, so the receivers just kind of fit in and made plays when their time came," Pearson says. "None of us were acting diva-ish, or anything of that nature. I think it changed when the rules changed and the passing game became a bigger part of the offensive scheme for most teams. More teams started using the shotgun, and three or four receivers, spreading the defense out. Receivers became more prevalent in the offensive game, and their personalities started to show as they got more opportunities.
"That position, because you're out there on your own, out wide, it gives you a feeling, a sense that every eye in the stadium is on you. And because of that, you might show out a little, wanting to perform to the best of your ability. And you might have a tendency to bring more attention to yourself in the end zone, or after you catch the ball.
"Receivers do it today because that camera is on them. They do it for marketing purposes. In the case of a Terrell Owens, he was feeling that even negative talk was good talk – as long as they were talking about him. I think T.O. had a big hand in that."
The phenomenon of the diva wide receiver is essentially a recent one, evolving over roughly the last two decades. There was Andre Rison and Michael Irvin, T.O. and Moss. There was Keyshawn Johnson and Plaxico Burress, Steve Smith and Chad Johnson, Brandon Marshall, DeSean Jackson and a list of others. Each has possessed a claim to celebrity that went beyond and often obscured their playing prowess, whether it was unveiling a new, provocative end zone celebration, clashing with teammates, coaches or opponents, or in a few cases, running afoul of the law.
Even with many of those players still active, along with others who don't shy away from the public eye, the receiver under the most powerful microscope today is Bryant.
"Everybody's waiting for me to screw up," he says. "I'm just going to leave them waiting. That's my motivation."