>>View Photo's from Dez's journey as a Cowboy
IRVING, Texas – The Dez Bryant that head coach Jason Garrett sees now is much more jubilant and upbeat than the one who darted into his office after the Bengals game in December.
Bryant's transformation on and off the field began before that game, but his increased maturity level, grit and determination were all evident after the thriving star snagged a late touchdown grab in Cincinnati, only to find out after the game he broke his finger and could need season-ending surgery.
"He was very emotional after he hurt his finger up there in Cincinnati," Garrett said. "He hurts his finger, then catches what amounted to be the game-winning touchdown pass with a broken finger, and he came in the next day and our doctors saw him and they said, 'Hey, you broke this thing, we might have to do surgery, you might have to go on IR.'
Bryant was stunned. Garrett said it took the receiver just two minutes to run into Garrett's office and plead to finish the season and play through the injury.
"It just speaks to his passion, his maturity as a player," Garrett said. "He's always been very physically tough, and we saw that right from the start. He demonstrates that he's mentally tough, too, and I think he handled it well during the season, and I think he's handled it well since then."
Few stories about Bryant's off-field habits contain positive imagery. Many football-related stories were negative as well, highlighting his inconsistency as a receiver up until this past year, when he set personal highs in receptions (92), receiving yards (1,382) and touchdowns (12.)
"If you look at his development over the course of the season, there were a lot of signature moments, if you will," Garrett said. "A lot of it had to do with what a lot of people didn't see, just his consistency as a person day in and day out, game in and game out, and then I think he really, really exploded at the end of the year and played as good of football as he's played."
Garrett believes Bryant's play and his rapport with quarterback Tony Romo are directly correlated with his maturity and consistency he's developed off the field.
After a domestic violence charge was conditionally dismissed against him during the season, Bryant said he looked forward to focusing entirely on football. He seems to have put a lot of focus on his decisions off the gridiron, as well.
The more Bryant stays out of the headlines during the offseason, the better. That is, unless it's for reasons like last week, when he made an appearance at a rally against domestic violence.
"He's just a really, really good young man," Garrett said. "He's made great strides over the last three years. We feel good about the progress he's made not only as a player, but as a person. We all know from the background from where he came, he's really grown a lot. I think the consistency that he's shown in his personal life spills over to the consistency he's shown as a player and his production he's shown on Sundays. I feel great about his progress and try to stay in touch with him and all our players. "
The Cowboys saw last year what can happen when Bryant's focus is entirely on football. If he stays out of trouble off the field, he can continue to grow as a receiver on it. Owner/general manager Jerry Jones said the Cowboys are just beginning to tap into Bryant's potential.
"I don't think this is just optimism, but we all know that Dez, in a way, is just getting started relative to his development as a weapon," Jones said. "Certainly that's what Jason has shared, his thoughts with me, and that's what Tony had shared with me.
"I'm looking forward to a more effective Dez Bryant, and everything I'm saying about his work is showing us that."