More questions than answers surround the Dallas Cowboys going into this season.
Can Tony Romo’s back hold up? Will DeMarco Murray play in all 16 games for the first time in his career? Will Jason Witten show signs of slowing down at age 32? How bad is the defense going to be?
The only sure thing, it seems, is wide receiver Dez Bryant. We’re talking about his play, of course, not a possible contract extension, which is another question that could be added to the list.
Over the past two seasons, Bryant is tied for first among all receivers in touchdowns (25), sixth in receiving yards (2,615) and seventh in receptions (185).
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Nobody should be surprised if Bryant puts up similar, or even better, numbers than he has the past two seasons.
“He’s a young kid, he’s really still just getting into the peak of his career,” play-caller Scott Linehan said. “Like any other player, he can have improvement in a lot of areas, and he’s working at that. I’ve been really impressed with how hard he works and how much he focuses on that.”
Linehan is right. At 25, Bryant is just entering the prime of his career compared to other great receivers.
A 29-year-old Michael Irvin set career-highs and Cowboys’ franchise records for receptions (111) and receiving yards (1,603) in 1995. Randy Moss had a career-high in receiving yards at 26, and Jerry Rice at 33. Terrell Owens set the Cowboys’ franchise-record for most TD receptions in a season at age 34.
It’s certainly realistic to think that Bryant could own a few of those franchise records by the end of this season. He’s already established himself as the Cowboys’ biggest offensive threat, but shot down the notion that he has to carry the team on his back.
“I’ve never even looked at it that way,” Bryant said. “It’s just about going out there and doing what I love. I think everybody knows their roles here. We do what we need to do to do our best at our spots and at our roles. That’s exactly what we’ve been doing.”
Bryant acknowledged that his role is to make big plays and that should translate to throwing up his trademark “X” more times than not. He also should get more opportunities, with a greater emphasis on the vertical passing game under Linehan.
The deep pass wasn’t a priority last season. Romo ranked 17th in the NFL in pass attempts of at least 21 yards, but that is expected to change, and Bryant is expected to be the main beneficiary.
Bryant has nine 100-yard receiving games the past two season after having none in 2011 and only one in 2010 as a rookie. Equally important has been Bryant’s development as a scoring threat near the goal line.
He’s become as close to unstoppable as there is in those situations, particularly on fade or back-shoulder fade routes. The numbers tell the story as he finished last season with five consecutive games with a TD and has scored in 17 of the past 24 games.
“He’s one of those guys where you think there’s no chance of him even getting to it and he gets to it,” rookie receiver Devin Street said. “I don’t get wowed too much, but you do say ‘wow’ on some of the plays he makes. He just knows how to use his body and get leverage and that’s the biggest thing I’m trying to take away from him … outside of the mental part and how much passion he plays with.”
Bryant’s passion is undeniable and it’s something that rubs off on the entire team. That, more than anything, has stood out to Linehan, who has coached elite receivers throughout his career, from Moss to Calvin Johnson to Bryant.
“He loves to play this game and he plays at a high level, and his energy is a big part for our team,” Linehan said. “We call it ‘juice’ in this game, from not only his playmaking but all his passion for what he does. Love the kid. He’s a great player and it’s great to be on his team.”