Dez Bryant living up to the hype

ARLINGTON, Texas -- There's a hesitant tone in the voice of the NFL's ultimate hype man when Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones discusses Dez Bryant.

Especially now that Bryant has begun living up to the hype that accompanies being a receiver assigned No. 88 for America's Team.

"The point is, without trying to be cute, Dez is improving, but the risk is here that he's on the field in the glaring spotlight for the Cowboys and off the field for the Cowboys," Jones said after Bryant's dominant performance keyed the Cowboys' overtime win over the Cleveland Browns last week. "So I'm reluctant -- we all are -- to say, 'Boy, Dez is doing good.' Dez is doing better."

Bryant doesn't need a bunch of pats on the back at this point. He needs to keep getting kicks in the butt.

That applies to his maddeningly inconsistent professional career and his sadly chaotic personal life.

The most encouraging sign about Bryant right now: He has matured enough to know that. He doesn't just accept it. He embraces it.

"I do want to be pushed," said Bryant, who has 15 catches for 232 yards and two touchdowns in the past two games entering the Thanksgiving Day matchup with the Washington Redskins.

Sure, it's nice for Bryant to hear how great he's doing. The fact that the third-year receiver is finally performing up to his elite potential is a major reason why the 5-5 Cowboys still have a fighting chance to make the playoffs at this point. He has been a big factor in their first back-to-back wins of the season, making game-changing plays and no glaring mistakes in wins the past two weeks.

That's all swell, but Bryant needs to hear how he can keep getting better. Better yet, that's what he wants to hear.

"I'm the type of person that I really don't like to pay attention to success, because I don't want that to stand in the way," Bryant said. "I like to just keep grinding, keep working and keep working, keep working, keep working, keep working."

Bryant has a genuine desire to be great, to take full advantage of his phenomenal physical gifts. He just needs more guidance than perhaps any other NFL player, as the 24-year-old kid tries to grow into being a man.

The Cowboys were well aware of that when they traded up to select Bryant with the 24th overall pick in the 2010 draft. Heck, he'd have been long gone by then if not for off-field issues that frightened away most teams.

There's no nice way to put it. Bryant's childhood in Lufkin, Texas, was a living hell. How else to describe being born to a 42-year-old father who later floated in and out of his life and 14-year-old mother who later served prison time for selling crack cocaine?

College recruiters have called it the most dysfunctional home situation they've ever seen. Maybe that's not an excuse for Bryant's many missteps. But it's inarguably the rough reality, creating a set of obstacles and challenges that Bryant continues to have to overcome.

To be brutally honest, Bryant's rare ability is probably the only reason he escaped East Texas poverty. The fact that the Cowboys consider him one of the two or three most talented receivers in the NFL is the only reason they put up with all of his problems in the first two-plus years of his career.

But the biggest reason to believe Bryant can succeed on this stage? He craves discipline, structure and constructive criticism, appreciating the tough love he was deprived of during his childhood.

"It shows that I have people that care," Bryant said.

After spending his formative years with no true authority figures, Bryant has a bunch of them now.

As far as football goes, the Cowboys recruited receivers coach Jimmy Robinson in part because of his reputation as a no-nonsense disciplinarian. Head coach Jason Garrett also rides Bryant hard behind closed doors when the receiver makes mental mistakes, such as busting assignments or running sloppy routes.

And Bryant considers veterans such as quarterback Tony Romo, receiver Miles Austin and tight end Jason Witten to be big brother types who blend support with honest, critical feedback. You'll never hear Romo rip Bryant to the media, but you'll see the quarterback confront the receiver if a route isn't run correctly.

"They stay on me all the time and I love it," said Bryant, whose flashes of brilliance were too often overshadowed by mistakes until the past couple of games. "I don't get down. I take it all in. I really take it to heart. I just want to do everything right that they tell me."

Added Jones: "That's one of the good things about him. You can coach him on and off the field hard."

As far as off the field goes, Bryant has an owner/general manager who invests more personal time in him than Jones has in any other player during his 23-year tenure in charge of the Cowboys. He has an adviser, David Wells, who is essentially an extension of the Cowboys' security staff and heads the three-man detail that always accompanies Bryant away from team functions.

He has a counselor, which was part of the "Dez Rules" devised by Jones and Wells after Bryant's personal life hit a low this summer. The counseling began before it was court mandated as part of the conditional dismissal of a misdemeanor family violence charge that stemmed from an alleged physical confrontation with his mother, Angela, in July.

Bryant certainly isn't proud of that incident. He stresses that the love for his mother, whom he financially supports along with several other family members, is stronger than ever now. However, Bryant also believes he benefitted from the arrest and the ensuing fallout, saying it forced him to realize, "I need to change my act up."

Of course, Bryant had a lot of help with that realization. He's reaping the rewards now, flourishing in his professional life and at peace in his personal life.

Bryant, a proud father of sons Zayne, 5, and Dez Jr., 2, knows what he wants in his life and his career. With a lot of guidance, he finally has a few clues about how to accomplish those goals.

It has been a lifelong learning process, as Bryant put it, and he's finally getting it.

"I feel like it's a slow progress," Bryant said. "I feel like it's baby steps."

Some pats on the back are appropriate for the recent steps Bryant has taken. The kicks to his butt need to keep coming for the progress to continue.