ARLINGTON, Texas – So much drama has befallen the Dallas Cowboys since last summer – the lofty expectations crushed by the 1-7 start; the season-ending injury to Tony Romo(notes); the midseason coaching change from Wade Phillips to Jason Garrett; the indignity of hosting a championship game they couldn't come close to sniffing, the icy streets and the disappearing seats on Super Sunday – that the Dez Bryant/Roy Williams pads-carrying scandal seems like the relic of a bygone era.
Yet it's worth remembering that Bryant, the polarizing and mega-talented wideout the Cowboys selected with the 24th overall pick of the 2010 draft, got off to a rocky start in Big D because he refused to accept symbolic subservience.
A year after the then-rookie riled starter Roy Williams by refusing to participate in a minor training camp hazing ritual, Bryant finds himself in a much different position. The practice of carrying teammates' pads has been abolished under Garrett. Williams is gone, too, waived after 2½ disappointing seasons and now fighting to revive his career as a member of the Chicago Bears.
Bryant, meanwhile, believes he has approached his job with a newfound maturity, even as he scoffs at the less-than-professional reception he received from his departed teammate last summer.
"It's kind of childish to do rookie hazing," Bryant said last week after a practice at Cowboys Stadium. "Those guys are supposed to be focused on teaching the young guys, helping us get better, make us a better team. I was looking to learn from Roy like I learn from Miles [Austin], Tony [Romo], Sam [Hurd] and a bunch of other guys. I was excited just to even be next to him.
"To tell you the truth, I didn't even think it was gonna be a big deal, me not carrying his pads. Everybody was brought here to play football, to work together, to try to be a team. I don't know why he cared."
Bryant, who showed glimpses of brilliance (including a pair of punt returns for touchdowns) before suffering a season-ending ankle fracture in early December, can't seem to outrun controversy. In 12 games, he caught 45 passes for 561 yards and six TDs – and, beginning in January, a whole lot of grief from his legions of skeptics.
First, former Cowboys receiver Patrick Crayton(notes) told Dallas' ESPN radio affiliate that the Cowboys "let [Bryant] get away with a lot of stuff. A lot of stuff." Shortly thereafter, ESPNDallas.com quoted a team front-office source as saying the organization "would think about" trading Bryant – a possibility quickly discounted by executive vice president Stephen Jones.
In March, Bryant reportedly received a criminal trespass warning from a pair of off-duty police officers at a Dallas-area mall for "creating a scene" when asked to pull up his low-hanging pants. Bryant says it was actually a friend whose pants were deemed inappropriate and that he was never banned from the mall, as had been reported.
Shortly thereafter, news surfaced of Bryant having been sued for a pair of unpaid jewelry bills; one lawsuit was subsequently settled, for a reported $246,000.
In July, Bryant's former mentor, Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders, said in an interview with Atlanta's WCNN that "everyone is" concerned about the wideout's direction and that he needs "to start hiring a 'no' man."
Yet Bryant's closest advisor, David Wells, insists the wideout has been "a different man" the past few months.
"I've really noticed a maturity," Wells says. "He's trying very hard to become a man, to be accountable, to be punctual, to do things the right way. It's a work in progress, but there has been progress, trust me. And the way he prepared himself physically during the lockout was tremendous."
Though absent from the team structure during the work stoppage, Bryant was a regular participant in player workouts organized by Romo. Since camp began, he has impressed teammates with his work ethic and commitment.
"When Dez is out on the practice field, he's always gonna work hard," Romo says. "His whole thing was just the understanding of the game and getting the details right. He's got incredible talent. The sky's the limit for him, really."
Says Cowboys owner Jerry Jones: "He is, in this camp, working hard. Players, key leadership, are bragging about how hard he's working. He's well-advised and he's working with those people to get his business straightened up.
"Certainly, when we drafted him, we knew he had judgment issues – not substance, not competitive or work ethic. He's a good person. He just has got some real evolving to do in the adult world, and he's making progress. And let me just say this: The only guy I know who was behind his progress at this age was Jerry Jones – he had some growing up to do."
Bryant says he has made changes to his lifestyle, ranging from instituting a de facto dress code for the friends who accompany him to the mall to attempting to become more punctual. He seems particularly stung by the criticism from Sanders, who once told me Bryant "needs a Flavor Flav clock around his neck," and who essentially disowned him last spring, explaining that Bryant's off-field issues reflected poorly on Sanders as a mentor, something "Prime Time" has turned into a side business.
"I know what it's about, and I'd rather not get into it," Bryant says. "I understand that he's got [business interests to consider]. It's wrong how he's going about it. We live in the same city. We're both grown men. He has my number. I tried to get in contact with him but he didn't get back to me."
The current Cowboys leaders with whom Bryant interacts on a regular basis are far more flattering.
"Dez is like a 12-year-old, in a good way," Romo says. "He's the guy who'll say on the way to a game, ‘I can eat 26 gummy bears,' or something like that. It's just so fun to see – the purity. He's like a kid. He's not trying to be malicious."
Says veteran linebacker Keith Brooking(notes): "He absolutely loves the game of football, I know that. And he has so much potential. In all my years in the league, there are very few guys who show up on the first day and you go, ‘Wow.' This camp has been great for him."
With Williams gone, Bryant will line up opposite Austin, a 2011 Pro Bowl participant who has had back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons.
"He's gonna be on the field a lot, and he's gonna get the ball a lot," Jones says of Bryant. "And he should. As far as a player, athletically, we don't have anybody better than him."
Bryant says he welcomes the challenge: "I feel great with my preparation. My teammates have been helping me with a lot of things, and especially the coaches. They're building a confidence level in me that's really high. It's got me fired up and ready to go."
If it all goes as planned in 2011, instead of being asked to carry a teammate's pads, Bryant may be carrying an offense.
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