Dez Bryant's maturation has him poised for historic Cowboys season

IRVING, Texas -- You see Dez Bryant, and there's a football in his hands.

Maybe he's twirling it in his palm. Perhaps he's tossing it high above his head and catching it again and again. Or just cradling it gently like a newborn.

You see Bryant on the practice field, and he's catching a football. Sometimes, quarterback Tony Romo is throwing it, or coach Jason Garrett is throwing it. Then again, he might have persuaded one of the equipment guys to play catch.

"Sometimes, I don't make eye contact with him," special-teams assistant Keith O'Quinn said. "Because if I do, I know he's going to want me to go out early and throw him some balls."

During the Dallas Cowboys' training camp, he often played catch with a couple of staff members' kids, who can't be older than 10, after practice. Garrett once saw him playing catch with a different youngster in the hotel parking lot.

"I love football, and I don't want to do nothing to put [that] in jeopardy," Bryant said. "That's why I like having the ball around me all of the time.

"I like having it around me because it reminds me of how much I have to lose if I don't handle my business. You have to respect what you do and what you love to succeed."

Bryant, born into an environment you wouldn't wish on anyone, finally grasps how much more there is to life than catching passes and scoring touchdowns as he prepares to start his fifth NFL season Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers.

These days, Bryant's sons -- Zayne and Dez Jr. -- provide the motivation to exceed every dream he had growing up in Lufkin, Texas, about three hours southeast of Dallas.

Football is the conduit to that lifestyle.

"I’m doing FaceTime with my son before the [preseason] Miami game, and he's running around the house throwing up the X," Bryant said. "Ain't nothing more important than being a great role model for my kids. That comes before everything.

"There's no doubt I love my dad to death, but I want my kids to grow up differently than I did."

So he works diligently to improve as a route-runner, imploring receivers coach Derek Dooley to correct the smallest mistake. He understands how he wants to attack cornerbacks, and he reads coverages almost as well as Romo.

And Bryant has learned the other receiver positions, so playcaller Scott Linehan has the confidence to move him around the formation, allowing him to avoid double teams more often.

Bryant is embarking on the brief period of his career when the mental aspect of the game is perfectly synched with his physical gifts.

In his first two seasons, Bryant had one 100-yard game; he's had nine in the past two seasons, including six games of more than 140 yards receiving. He's scored a touchdown in 17 of the past 24 games.

Inside the opponent's 10-yard line, he's virtually unstoppable. He can run the slant, the fade or the back-shoulder fade.

And, when all else fails, Romo just throws it up and lets Bryant make a catch only a Cirque Du Soleil acrobat could replicate.

Michael Irvin owns franchise records for receptions (111) and yards (1,603) in a season, and Terrell Owens has the franchise record for touchdowns (15). Who will be shocked if Bryant eclipses all three this season? After all, Bryant has averaged 92 receptions for 1,308 yards and 12 touchdowns the past two seasons.

The Cowboys' raggedy defense will force Romo to throw the ball even more than he wants, and Linehan is a master at maximizing his players' touches.

"I've got goals that I set so high that I probably can't achieve them," Bryant said. "But that’s why you work."

Bryant has done more work to improve off the field, which is where he needed the most work. His off-the-field transgressions reached an apex when an incident with his mother in July 2012 resulted in Bryant being charged with misdemeanor domestic violence.

These days the Cowboys ask him to talk to young players, such as Ahmad Dixon, about how to make better off-the-field decisions. Bryant remains flawed like the rest of us but said he's determined to not repeat his mistakes.

"It's not that I didn't know how to do right," Bryant said, "it’s that I had to learn some things and put some positive people around me and learn from them."

Bryant is a leader on the practice field because no one practices or works harder. He's obsessive-compulsive about getting better, and he's confident enough to ask Romo exactly how the quarterback wants certain routes run.

And he's the one player on the roster who hangs with offensive and defensive players. He hangs with established players and those with fringe careers.

"There's never been a question about his passion for the game, his love for the game or the kind of kid he is," Garrett said. "He's just an unbelievable teammate.

"Nobody catches more balls, somehow, some way. Everyone understands how good a player he is, but he has so many other traits he brings to the team."

All of that is why Bryant is poised to have the best season for a receiver in franchise history.