Dez Bryant caught between pain, gain

IRVING, Texas -- Dez Bryant strolled through the Dallas Cowboys' locker room Wednesday afternoon holding a pair of sneakers.

Fullback Lawrence Vickers joked that he wanted to trade shoes with the wide receiver. One thing was noticeable: Bryant held the shoes with his left hand, with his index finger pointing up.

It's this finger that's got Cowboys Nation on pins and needles.

Bryant has seen two doctors this week to determine whether he should undergo season-ending surgery or simply wear a taped-up splint.

The good news is that if Bryant plays, he gives the Cowboys a chance to defeat the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.

The bad news: Bryant would risk his season by playing, and the finger -- already slightly swollen -- could suffer long-term damage and possibly affect his ability to perform at a high level.

This is the risk NFL players take when confronted with injuries. Tight end Jason Witten suffered a slightly lacerated spleen in the preseason opener, putting his availability for the regular-season opener in doubt. Toward the end of the preseason, Witten was seen on the sideline having an animated, one-sided discussion with one of the team doctors.

Witten wanted to play; Cowboys' doctors didn't want to put him in harm's way. He was cleared, but the start of his season suffered. He had eight catches for 76 yards and no touchdowns in the first three weeks. He also had six drops in that span.

I ran into Witten one day during this stretch and asked him if he was 100 percent healthy. Surely a man coming off a lacerated spleen was still hurting.

Witten said he wasn't, and I believed him. The next week, he caught 13 passes for 112 yards and a touchdown. He has produced three 100-yard games, became the Cowboys' all-time leader in receptions and set career highs in catches (18) and yards (167) against the New York Giants. More importantly, seems OK now.

Bryant has scored seven touchdowns in the past five games and amassed 438 yards on 30 catches the past four weeks.

"Dez has been outstanding," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "He's gotten better and better each and every day since he's been here and he's understanding more and more how to prepare himself to play at a top level, week in and week out. He has a great passion for the game. He loves playing football [and] anybody that's been around him for one minute knows that and sees that. Nobody catches more balls than Dez Bryant."

He's playing out of his mind. The Cowboys, desperate for a playoff berth, badly need him to play. But at what cost?

The Cowboys are aware of Bryant's growing maturity as he develops into one of their cornerstone players. At some point, the Cowboys might have to extend Bryant's contract, much like they'll be forced to do with inside linebackers Sean Lee and Bruce Carter. If DeMarco Murray continues to produce, he, too, will get a new deal.

Health is always an issue when it comes to contracts. Just ask the front office about Jay Ratliff, whose body is breaking down after he signed a seven-year contract extension worth $48.6 million with a $10 million signing bonus last year.

Ratliff started 64 consecutive games at nose tackle, then the longest current stretch for a player at his position. But he missed the first four games of the 2012 season with ankle issues. He's missed the past three games with a groin injury and doesn't appear ready for a return against the Steelers.

The Cowboys have to be careful with new contracts to players with durability issues.

Bryant has had his share during his three-year career. It happens. It's the NFL. But if the Cowboys want to make sure they have a long-term future with him, they better think carefully before allowing him to play, if they have that option.

The feeling is Bryant will play Sunday unless the doctors stop him. Should Bryant's injury get worse, the 2012 season could end miserably.