Bryant now has tools to match hype

IRVING, Texas -- For the first time in his career, Dez Bryant enters a season with expectations from fans and media that he's going to be one of the baddest men on the planet.

We all know why.

His combination of speed, strength and hands is rare. And he put on such a dazzling display in the last eight games -- 894 yards and 10 touchdowns -- of 2012 that he was essentially unstoppable.

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo had a 148.0 passer rating throwing to Bryant in those final eight games, and his 24-year-old receiver finished the season with 92 catches for 1,382 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Bryant followed that up with a quiet offseason away from the field for the first time in his career as he committed himself to learning his craft completely. Bryant worked hard on his route-running and conditioning, so he could run as fast and hard in the fourth quarter as he did in the first, which hasn't always been the case.

Combine Bryant's performance at the end of last season with the way he dominated training camp and performed in the preseason, and it's easy to see why anyone and everyone expects him to dominate this season.

After all, when Michael Irvin talks about praying as a youth for the type of talent Bryant has, we know the hype machine has gone overboard.

The hyperbole is a compliment to Bryant's work ethic, improvement and maturity on and off the field. The only negative is that it can be impossible to meet such high expectations.

Is it a bad season if Bryant doesn't make All-Pro or the Pro Bowl? Is it a bad season if he doesn't break Irvin's single-season records for catches (111) and yards (1,603)? What if he doesn't smash Terrell Owens' touchdown record of 15 touchdowns?

You look at Bryant's talent and maturity as a player, the comprehensive instruction he's getting from position coach Derek Dooley and Romo's talent, and it's easy to envision Bryant putting together the best season in franchise history for a receiver.

That's certainly high praise for an organization that calls Bob Hayes, Drew Pearson, Tony Hill and Irvin alums.

"He cares," Romo said of Bryant. "He comes to work every day. He works his butt off. He's just seeing the fruits of that effort and work."

Occasionally, however, expectations can become a burden, a curse even. Or they become so high, they're ridiculous.

Look at Texas Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish, criticized by some because he doesn't throw a shutout or strike out even more batters each outing.

Still, Bryant will be held to the same standard as Detroit's Calvin Johnson, Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald and Houston's Andre Johnson this season.

"It's not going to bother me," Bryant said Wednesday of increased expectations this season. "I'm not paying any attention to it. I'm going to keep grinding every day. I'm not listening to anything; I'm just trying to get better."

That's so much easier said than done, when every national reporter who comes through Dallas-Fort Worth will want one-on-one interviews. The same goes for each of the networks.

"I've never worried about expectations -- not even when I was at Oklahoma State," Bryant said. "Once you start doing that, you start playing horribly because you start thinking about this or that instead of just playing the game."

"I don't even really like getting praised," he said. "I play this game because I love it. If all that stuff comes, it comes. If it don't, it don't. I work hard and I'm trying to get better every day. If I do that, everything will take care of itself."

Don't misunderstand. This isn't arrogance. It's the confidence that accompanies hard work, preparation and immense talent -- the same confidence he displayed at Lufkin (Texas) High School and Oklahoma State.

And it's why so many of us expect him to be unstoppable.