IRVING, Texas — Dallas coach Jason Garrett implores Dez Bryant to run “north and south” with the ball. The Cowboys receiver is listening and his career sure seems headed a lot more north than south these days.
Bryant’s first catch Sunday at Cincinnati (7-5) could get the Dallas receiver to 1,000 yards for the first time as a pro.
The past four games, he scored in each one and had the same career high in yards twice.
On the go-ahead touchdown last weekend against Philadelphia, Garrett called for Bryant to get the ball on a screen pass 6 yards from the end zone. The only way in was “north and south,” and Bryant ran through a defender at the goal line, just inside the pylon.
“Dez is growing before our eyes,” Garrett said after the 38-33 victory.
That score was actually the second time Bryant heeded his coach’s words against the Eagles. The first wasn’t planned, though. Tony Romo scrambled to his right and turned back to see Bryant wide open across the field. Bryant did a little weaving on that 23-yard score, but mostly headed in the direction Garrett prefers and beat two defenders to the goal line.
“Tony, he believes in me and I want that to increase more,” said Bryant, who has 978 yards and eight touchdowns and a career-high 145 yards in consecutive games against Cleveland and Washington. “It’s all about focus and not losing composure. If he calls a play and I do what I’m supposed to do, it makes a difference.”
One other play might have been more important than Bryant’s two touchdowns.
Dallas trailed Philadelphia 27-24 midway through the fourth quarter and was facing third-and-2, which usually dictates Romo throwing a short pass to trusty tight end Jason Witten. Instead, Romo went deep down the sideline to Bryant, who outran Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on the 35-yard catch. The screen pass for the score came four plays later.
“It’s dictated off of me looking at the corner seeing where the leverage is,” Romo said. “It’s also dictated off of whether or not you feel comfortable with the guy who’s over there ...”
Hold it right there, even though Romo did some more explaining.
Trust has been perceived as an issue for Romo with Bryant since character issues dropped the former Oklahoma State star low in the first round in the 2010 draft. There’s been evidence, too — as recently as the fourth game this year against Chicago, when Bryant ran the wrong route and the Bears kick-started a blowout with an easy touchdown on the resulting interception.
Things appear to have changed a lot in two months.
“He’s making less and less mistakes really every month that goes by,” Romo said.
He added, “He’s done a good job of locking in and focusing in practice. He’s always worked hard.”
There’s other evidence that Bryant might be growing up.
For all the trouble of his first year in Dallas with lawsuits for unpaid bills and sagging pants at the mall, the most serious problem was a misdemeanor family violence arrest after a dispute with his mother over the summer. Last month, Bryant reached an agreement with prosecutors that could lead to dismissal of the charge.
A few days after the deal was announced, Bryant opened up to reporters, saying he needed to “change my act up” and that his relationship with his mother was strong “even after the fact.”
“I think in so many ways Dez has matured,” Garrett said. “I think he’s just been more consistent throughout the game whether he gets the ball or whether he doesn’t get the ball, running his routes, doing his job.”
And running north and south. One of the lowest points for what Garrett might call the “dancing Dez” was an aborted punt return against the New York Giants that ended in a fumble and cost Bryant those return duties. Bryant made a mistake even trying to field the ball, then was moving sideways when the ball was stripped. The play came while Dallas was falling behind 23-0 in a 29-24 loss in late October.
“Sometimes when Dez gets in trouble, he starts kind of dancing too much and that plays a little bit into the defense’s hand,” Garrett said. “A lot more guys can get around him. I thought he did a good job (against the Eagles) of putting his foot in the ground and going north and south, splitting defenders and just getting into the end zone.”
Bryant’s third season is already the best of his career. He has a chance to make it a breakout year.
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