Bryant makes little things big priority

MIAMI -- It was a fourth-down play during the second series of a Dallas Cowboys preseason game none of us will remember a couple of months from now.

But it was the kind of play that showed Dez Bryant's growth as a wide receiver. It was the kind of play that, if Bryant consistently makes it during the season, he'll eventually get the big-money contract he so desperately craves.

On fourth-and-4, Bryant ran a slant against man coverage. He easily beat Miami Dolphins cornerback Will Davis -- who had to know the ball was headed Bryant's way -- inside and made a contested catch for a 6-yard gain and a first down.

"I expect the ball every play. That's the way you have to think," Bryant said Saturday. "It doesn't mean you get it, but you have to expect it and, when it comes, you have to catch it."

The acrobatic catches when he snatches the ball over defensive backs are fantastic. So are the back-shoulder fades when he contorts his body to make a grab.

The crossing routes on which Bryant uses his combination of speed and power to rip through tackles and turn short passes into long gains are impressive, too.

But the drive-sustaining slants are more impressive. Seriously.

They're not sexy and they don't make fans throw up the "X" the way Bryant does after he scores a touchdown. Those types of plays, though, are the ones Bryant must consistently make if he wants to achieve his goal of being one of the game's best receivers.

They're the kinds of plays Michael Irvin used to make all of the time. In key passing situations, everyone in the stadium knew Troy Aikman was throwing the ball to Irvin, and there was nothing the defense could do about it.

Bryant, entering the last year of his contract, is primed to have the best year of his career. He's in his athletic prime, his command of the offensive scheme is better than it has ever been, he's running routes better than ever, and playcaller Scott Linehan is a master at getting the ball to specific players.

Perhaps the days of Bryant disappearing from the offense for long stretches have ended. Yes, teams will often use a safety to double him. Yes, teams will use a linebacker to take away inside routes at times.

Yes, he'll be the focal point of every defensive coordinator. So what? Such is the life for a true No.1 receiver in today's NFL.

Calvin Johnson, the league's best receiver, put up monster numbers in Detroit with Linehan as his offensive coordinator.

In five seasons under Linehan, Johnson averaged 89 catches for 1,448 yards and 10 touchdowns. Two seasons ago, Johnson caught 122 passes for 1,964 yards and five touchdowns.

You would think Bryant would've burst into Linehan's office the day he arrived to find out how Linehan could do the same thing for him that he did for Johnson.

Well, he hasn't.

"I haven't talked to him at all about what he did with Calvin," Bryant said. "I just know I love what we're doing on offense because we're attacking. I know I'm going to get a lot of double-teams, but Scott is going to put me in some different situations like the slot that gets me away from coverage, and it's going to work in everyone's favor.

"It's all about preparation. I've learned what I need to do. They give me a pattern and I learn it. They give me another and I learn that one. My attitude is that there's nothing I can't do."

Bryant won't always be an athletic freak. Eventually, his athleticism will fade and he'll have to rely on the nuances of the game to succeed.

The work he puts in now will make that transition, whenever it occurs, much easier.

"I know it sounds funny, but all I want to do is help this team win a Super Bowl," he said. "That's all I want."

Maybe, one day, he'll catch a short slant for a first down that will help the Cowboys do it. It seems like a long way off, but it's not from a lack of effort on Bryant's part.