Philadelphia, PA – Mature wasn't a word associated with Dez Bryant at the beginning of the season. Not with his past off-the-field issues and certainly not after his arrest on domestic violence charges against his mother.
But things seem to be coming together for Bryant as he continues to grow into the player the Dallas Cowboys hoped when they traded up to take him 24th overall in the 2010 draft.
The first thing that jumps out about Bryant's 2012 campaign is the numbers: 88 receptions, 1,311 yards and 12 touchdowns.
No, and that is a good thing.
All of Bryant's headlines have been made on the field. No more legal issues (Bryant's mother opted against filing charges) and no locker-room flair ups or stories of lavish spending that seem to plague a lot of NFL players. Bryant has kept it all on the field.
"Dez works very hard," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said on Wednesday. "He cares a great deal about the game. He wants to be a great player. He wants to help our football team and he's grown right before our eyes in so many different ways, as a person and as a player since he's been here."
Bryant can even now be viewed as a blossoming leader. At the very least, he is setting an example of the sacrifice it takes to win by postponing surgery on a broken finger so he can keep playing.
If the Cowboys weren't in the hunt for the NFC East title, which they can claim this weekend with a victory over the Washington Redskins, Bryant would have probably gone under the knife already. Instead, he is blocking out the pain and spending frequent time in the end zone, having scored a touchdown in seven straight games to tie a Dallas franchise record.
"This is what you play for. I felt like the finger, at the time, really was a non-issue. I felt like what's going on right now is more important," said Bryant.
"It's a mental thing. If you think it's going to hurt, it's going to hurt. If you don't think about it, there's nothing to worry about. That's my mindset every time I step on the field, the finger's not an issue."
So does the finger hurt Bryant?
"No," he said with a smile and a laugh.
Defensive backs haven't found much humor when trying to slow down Bryant this season. He is second in the league among wide receivers in touchdowns and has hauled in 13 passes for 283 yards and three scores in two games since hurting his finger versus Cincinnati on Dec. 9.
He posted the best game of his young career last Sunday in an overtime loss to the New Orleans Saints, making nine grabs and racking up 224 yards. That included a pair of touchdowns of 58 yards each and a big 41-yard catch in the fourth that helped Dallas rally from 14 down to force overtime.
Not bad for a receiver who came into the season with just one career 100-yard receiving game.
It came too late to help get Bryant a Pro Bowl nod, but the 24-year-old can settle for having more catches and touchdowns through his first 42 games than another Cowboys receiver who wore No. 88: Michael Irvin.
"The Pro Bowl gets picked for a lot of different reasons and that's just the way it's been for a long time," said Garrett. "Certainly, Dez has had as good a year as any receiver in the National Football League and his impact on our team has been very significant. He just has to feel good about that."
Bryant certainly came into the NFL with a question mark. He was one of the top receivers available in the 2010 draft, but was ineligible for much of the previous season for Oklahoma State for violating an NCAA bylaw for lying about visiting and working out with former NFL star Deion Sanders.
There have also been a number of stories about some of his antics off the field, though it should be noted that Bryant had never been arrested prior to the altercation with his mother.
Dallas knew it was taking a gamble with the Texas-born star, but it is starting to reap Texas-sized rewards.
Garrett praised Bryant's consistent approach in practice and said it is paying off come game time.
"He always wanted to practice hard. You've heard me say this a lot that nobody catches more balls in practice than Dez Bryant, but I think he's understanding more and more how to be precise with his routes in practice and how that carries over into the ballgame," noted the Cowboys coach.
Bryant is also recognizing his own growth. Take his upcoming matchup with Washington Redskins cornerback and noted trash talker DeAngelo Hall. The wide out said that Hall's mind games may have worked on him in the past, but not now.
"I understand the game and what other players want to do to benefit their game," said Bryant, also saying that he himself is getting more and more comfortable.
And what makes Bryant even more dangerous going forward?
"I feel like there is always room to get better. I know I'm not all the way there yet, but everyday I feel like I'm getting closer and closer," he said. "Not only me, but everybody else is going to keep making strides to get better at what we do."
And that has Dez Bryant on the NFL's radar for all the right reasons.