Forget the Dez Bryant vs. Calvin Johnson story heading into Sunday’s game between the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions.
No one argues that Johnson, a former No. 1 pick of the Lions’ in 2007 and a three-time Pro Bowler who broke Jerry Rice’s single-season record for receiving yards, deserves top billing as the NFL’s best receiver.
He has earned.
He deserves that.
He is that.
The important narrative is the continued growth of Bryant and his rise toward Johnson’s level.
Bryant, a first-round pick of the Cowboys’ in 2010, is well on his way.
“Johnson is No. 1 right now, and he should be,” said former Cowboys receiver and current ESPN analyst Keyshawn Johnson. “But Dez is coming. I do think at some time he will be considered the No. 1 target in the NFL. He will be considered that, as all the great ones have been. Don’t get it twisted, he is in the conversation now. But he is not there yet.”
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones concurred, saying, “I think Johnson at Detroit has got to be the best receiver — or best end target, if you want to put it like that — best guy to go to right now in the league. Dez can aspire to be that and has a chance to be that.”
The numbers are certainly lining up that way.
Bryant, 24, leads the Cowboys (4-3) with 42 catches for 569 yards and six touchdowns. Johnson, 28, who has been slowed by injuries, leads the Lions (4-3) with 33 catches for 492 yards and six touchdowns.
More pointedly, Bryant’s numbers through the first 50 games of his career are actually better than Johnson’s. Bryant leads in catches 242 to 217, yards 3,440 to 3,362 and touchdowns 33 to 25.
It must be noted that Johnson’s numbers were marred early in his career by bad quarterback play in Detroit, where he had to endure the likes of Jon Kitna, Dan Orlovsky and Daunte Culpepper. Bryant has been the beneficiary of the consistent quarterback play of Tony Romo throughout his career.
Bryant said he started following Johnson’s career when he was in college at Oklahoma State as well as some of the other top receivers in the game. There is no comparison in his mind.
“It’s just a pride thing,” Bryant said. “Calvin Johnson set the standard, set that bar high for every wide receiver in the league. It’s really respect to him that he makes receivers like us go out there and try to be our best.
“While they were in the NFL, I was still in college, I was just getting to college,” Bryant continued. “This was the crazy thing when I hear all this comparison stuff, because I have always been one of Calvin’s biggest fans. I watch him. I watch all those other guys. Just the attitude that they have on the field, those are the things you want to take from those guys and add it to your game.”
For the record, Johnson has a lot of respect for Bryant’s game.
In a radio interview last season he said Bryant was one of the best receivers in the game.
“That dude is a beast,” Johnson said. “He’s for real.”
Asked this week about Bryant, Johnson said, “I saw him a little bit when he was at Oklahoma State. He’s always been a very good, big playmaker, 6-2, strong receiver. Those were some of his strengths. He goes up and catches the ball well. Besides route running, he’s an all-around good receiver.”
Outside of the numbers, one reason the two often are compared is their combination of size, speed and athleticism. Bryant is 6-foot-2, 222 pounds, while Johnson is 6-5, 236 and has been timed as fast as 4.36 seconds in the 40-yard dash. Bryant has run it in 4.5 seconds.
Both found success early in their NFL careers, but nobody has been better than Bryant over the last year.
He had 92 catches for 1,392 yards and 12 touchdowns in last season’s breakout campaign. And while Johnson had a historic season in 2012, with 122 catches for an NFL-record 1,944 yards, Bryant’s 10 touchdowns over the final eight games were a league high.
Bryant has continued that torrid pace in 2013, with six touchdowns. His 16 touchdowns over the past 15 games are more than anyone, including Johnson.
It’s one reason why Bryant’s confidence level is sky high.
And therein lies the basis of the drama last week when Bryant was quoted on local radio saying there were things that he can do as well or better than anyone in the league, including Johnson.
It got twisted into Bryant saying that he was better than Johnson.
Lions receiver Nate Burleson soon chimed in, saying “he’s not Calvin Johnson. No way, no how. Sorry, Dez. Keep it real.”
Bryant’s maturity off the field after some controversies earlier in his career has been as notable as his rising production on the field.
He has done his best not to be a distraction for his team, so he went to damage control mode, regarding the sensationalized Johnson comments.
“I think a lot of people took it the wrong way,” Bryant said. “I don’t compare myself with anybody. I think when you get to comparing yourself with others, that’s when you start to have a downfall.
“What I was saying was, I can make catches and all of that. Things he can do, I can do. I wasn’t saying it as it was just me who was able to do it. I’m pretty sure the next guy would say the same exact thing.”
Bryant even went as far as to text Johnson to make sure he understood what he meant. Johnson said he was flattered by the fuss.
“I guess you can take it as a compliment,” Johnson said. “That’s cool when somebody wants to try to do what I do or be what I am. Everybody’s their own person. You can’t do what the other person does. I just told him that I don’t really pay attention to the media anyway, so it doesn’t get across to me.”
There are some things that Bryant does as well as Johnson, including catching the ball in traffic, and better than Johnson, namely running after the catch.
But the thing about the situation that has resonated with the Cowboys is how Bryant has tried to manage it publicly while not backing down from his beliefs privately.
“I’m as proud of him for his comments [last] week as anything that he’s done,” Jerry Jones said. “You can tell he’s thinking about it. He’s not getting a lot of coaching out there as far as his comments are concerned, but he’s sensitive about it.
“He does have respect for Johnson, but yet we all see it and love it and that’s the competitiveness in him, and it’s the right combination.”