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Historically speaking, the 2012 campaign of the Dallas Cowboys isn't going to be remembered for a whole heck of a lot. There was Jason Witten breaking the franchise record for receptions and then shattering the league mark for catches by a tight end in a single season. Both are significant in the here and now, and could become much more so long-term, as there's no reason to believe either record will be broken any time in the near future.
Tony Romo set the franchise mark for touchdown passes, but that barely registered a blip on the collective radar of the fan base. For Romo at this point, fair or otherwise, his legacy, much like Danny White, is going to be determined in the postseason. And alas, the 53rd edition of America's Team didn't end in the tournament, instead finishing 8-8 for a second straight year.
So how will the most recent season that was be remembered five, 10, 20 years from today?
The answer is quite simple: This was the Year of Dez, the coronation of the next great No. 88 in Cowboys lore. Virtually overnight, he went from disappointing, tantalizing talent to admired, proven star.
One moment he was fumbling punts, dropping passes, running the wrong routes and jawing with opposing cornerbacks seemingly after each and every reception. The majority of the fans were frustrated that the third season of Dez looked much like the first two. What they didn't understand, though, was that Stage 3 Dez was just about a finished product. And, there's likely a Stage 4 Dez ahead as well, a nightmarish thought for opposing defensive coordinators and corners alike, but more on that later. For now, let's backtrack through the earlier stages of Dez:
Stage 1 – Few players have entered the league with the natural athletic strength and ability of Dez. As in ever. To his credit, he has been completely forthcoming in multiple interviews, admitting his thought process upon entering the league was of, more or less, show up and make plays because that's what he did at every level from Pop Warner through Oklahoma State.
And rookie Dez wasn't bad, 561 receiving yards in 12 games with eight touchdowns, including two on punt returns. He was just out there on instinct, raw talent. He wasn't overly familiar with the playbook or his routes, and film study and media interviews were for the most part optional, at least on his end.
Stage 2 – Enter Jimmy Robinson, the highly respected wide receivers coach who came over from the Packers about a week or so after Green Bay won the Super Bowl at Cowboys Stadium. His first, second and third order of business were a) teaching Dez the position and b) having Dez buy-in that he needed to learn the position. This wasn't an easy task, but Robinson was the perfect hire, having dealt with young, talented wideouts his entire career, from Andre Rison to Marvin Harrison to Greg Jennings. [embedded_ad]
So in 2011, Dez attended every meeting, studied his playbook and was often found talking routes and football in general away from the practice field. He was also working out like a triathlete. His numbers improved, 928 receiving yards and nine TD catches. Quite impressive for a kid who didn't turn 23 years of age until after midseason.
Stage 3 – Nevermind the numbers, at least for the moment. This is who Dez has become: Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012, Week 14 of a long season of football that began in late July at training camp. Dez arrived early that morning, received treatment, stretched, studied the game plan, and then went through a two-plus hour practice, stretching past 1 p.m. The locker room is soon full, the lunch line more so, still no Dez, though. He's lifting weights with a strength coach. For almost an hour. No time for lunch, a quick stop at his locker and it's time for back-to-back hour-long meetings. Dez is literally jogging toward his meeting room after a quick few minutes with a reporter.
Asked that very day what was next after this breakout season and Dez smiles, "I want to be the best wide receiver in football."
That would be Stage 4 for Dez and one that is entirely attainable. In fact, taking just the second half of the 2012 season into account, one in which he played with a fractured finger for the final three contests, he's already there. Over the last eight games, Dez caught 50 balls for 879 yards and 10 touchdowns. In the history of the NFL, as in 93 seasons, those numbers have only been produced one other time in the second half, that being Muhsin Muhammad with Carolina in 2004.
Here's the thing, though. The evolution of Dez has been about oh-so-much more than the numbers. Yes, the stats are pretty gaudy, historic for a third-year receiver, none before having tallied his receptions, yards and touchdowns. Still, it's about preparation for games, studying the film, understanding his role based on what the defense is giving the Cowboys offense, and perhaps most importantly, not allowing himself to be taken out of games with mindless trash talking. Word definitely spread at the beginning of the season to start jawing with Dez early and often, have him waste his energy and lose focus.
That wasn't happening over the second half of the schedule, with Dez giving the nod to his teammates for helping him through that transition.
"Knowing and watching Miles (Austin), Tony, Jason, they really express how things need to be done," Dez said. "Miles, he sets a great example of doing it. You know, when you've got somebody like that in front of you, you tend to pick up things. I feel like that's where it started and then I got so used to it. I started noticing things. I'm thinking, 'Hey, what about this? What about that?' They just work with me."
And the trash talking?
"I see the best do it – Witt, Miles – you know, a lot of guys talk trash to them and they just block it out," Dez said. "So yeah, I kind of just realized it wasn't worth it. Let my play speak for itself and follow their example of keeping my emotions in check on the field."
Another leap in the process was Dez realizing, or at least accepting, that every ball from Romo's right hand wasn't headed in his direction. Now, it should be noted that he's certainly not the first receiver to struggle with this concept. Michael Irvin was constantly in Troy Aikman's ear ("Michael honestly thought he was open on every play," Aikman once said) and Terrell Owens was even more vocal with Romo during his three-year tenure.
Also, Dez is seeing the game for the first time, and not just out there relying on his immense talent. He's even communicating what he's seeing, which was never the case in his first two seasons.
"I think he realizes that's not enough in this league to just be out there and throw me the ball, I'll catch it," Robinson said in December. "There's a lot more to it than that. I think he realizes that. The thing that he's also doing a good job of is communicating how a guy is playing him during the game. You know, 'He's doing this, he's lined up here. Here's what he's doing.'
"He has a thought from time to time about maybe we should run this route or I think I can get this. So he's observing what's going on around him and he's coming back with some pretty good input. And whether or not that gets put to use is not always the case. It's not that he's asking you to freelance or make something up because we're not going to do that. I do think that he's paying attention to what's going on around him and doing a better job of communicating rather than just letting something that happens out there frustrate him."
The scary aspect of this, spooky really, is how much Dez can still improve. Jerry Rice had 83 catches before his 24th birthday, which came in his second season with the 49ers. By the time Dez turned 24 midway through his third season, this past November, he'd totaled 149. Dez was tied for seventh in the league this year with 11 drops and was also called for four penalties, two areas of focus for next season. There were also two fumbles, which for someone as strong as Dez is really unacceptable, but he still has the habit of carrying the ball in his left hand while running downfield.
Now, this is somewhat nitpicking, he was a hands down top-10 wideout in the NFL last season. Still, there is no ceiling for Dez's potential. Not saying he's going to be the greatest to ever play the position, not by a long shot, but he's on the short, short list of those who have a chance to be in that conversation, and those players only come along once or twice in a generation.
"Dez has come full circle from where he was a couple of years ago," Romo said. "We go by catches whether or not someone has a good game as fans or as media sometimes. But when we watch the tape, we go by how he blocked, did he get open? The coverages are going to dictate who's going to get the ball. But does he run his route right? Is it precise? Is he quick in it?
"He's come 180 degrees, almost full circle where he basically gets to a point where he understands the game. Let's say he started off doing it 70 percent when he first got here. Then he got to 85. He's really close to being a guy where it's 100 percent. You've got to go through some things sometimes but he's a kid that wants it, that works hard, and he's got a really bright future."
Bright and limitless. The Year of Dez could certainly, and hopefully for Cowboys fans, become just a bookend for the Decade of Dez.
Follow Jeff Sullivan on Twitter, @SullyBaldHead, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.