The Dallas Cowboys couldn't trust receiver Dez Bryant to even run the right routes less than two months ago.
Now they're letting him dictate whether he plays with a broken left index finger. They are also drawing inspiration from Bryant's insistence on waiting until after the season for a surgery serious enough for owner Jerry Jones to startle his emerging star by mistakenly saying it would involve taking bone from his hip.
"Finding a way to play shows a lot of toughness because that's not easy to do," said tight end Jason Witten, who would know because he once ran 30 yards downfield without a helmet before getting tackled and played in the opener this season with a lacerated spleen. "He earned my respect."
Bryant broke the finger on a catch against Cincinnati two weeks ago. He scored a critical touchdown in the 20-19 win after the injury and made it clear early last week that he would play against Pittsburgh.
Playing with a padded glove that exposed the tip of the broken finger, Bryant looked like a decoy in the first quarter because Tony Romo kept throwing to Miles Austin, but he still scored a touchdown for the sixth straight game — catching a ball away from his body, fingers first — and finished with four catches for 59 yards.
The Cowboys (8-6) beat the Steelers 27-24 in overtime last weekend and emerged with control of their playoff hopes. Dallas moves on with wins over New Orleans (6-8) at home on Sunday and at Washington in the finale.
"I just wanted to be out there and I felt like I needed to," Bryant said. "Miles came up to me and said, 'We're all really inspired by you playing.' I can tell from the guys that it meant a lot."
Seven weeks earlier — in that same locker room — Bryant had to acknowledge that his route-running wasn't precise enough, and that it cost Romo one of four interceptions in a 29-24 loss to the New York Giants. He also botched a punt return so badly that coach Jason Garrett took those duties away from him.
Bryant did have 110 yards receiving that day — a season high at the time — and made a spectacular catch that appeared to win the game in the final seconds. But a replay showed that his fingers came down first out of bounds, so he still had just two touchdowns through seven games.
The third-year pro was on his way to another mediocre season, and still didn't know whether Dallas County prosecutors would pursue family violence charges against him over an altercation with his mother during the summer. That incident came after his first two years were marred by lawsuits over unpaid bills for tickets and jewelry and a scene at the mall for wearing sagging pants.
Just as his career-best touchdown streak started, though, Bryant got word that a deal had been reached that could lead to dismissal of the family violence charges. He celebrated by having the same career high in receiving yardage twice — 145 against Cleveland and Washington. With eight touchdowns in six games, Bryant is now tied for the among NFL receivers with 10 scores.
"I'm proud of him," Witten said. "You talk about him dealing with all the stuff he's dealt with the three years he's been here. He's almost like a little brother. You keep offering him support and encouragement. He's a good kid. It kind of seemed like he's put it all behind him."
Jones, ever the optimist, has been guarded as Bryant kept stringing together good games. He gushed about the receiver after beating the Steelers, but scared Bryant a little by offering the possibility of a bone graft involving Bryant's hip ("You're not touching my hip," Bryant told reporters Sunday after hearing the Jones diagnosis). Turns out Jones just misunderstood the doctors. The bone will come from the hand. But Jones' point was clear: the injury is serious.
"He certainly is playing with some risks, but he was inspirational out there to everybody involved in the organization," Jones said. "He meant it because we were still playing for all the marbles, and he wanted to give everything he could."
While Dallas coach Jason Garrett said medical opinions did factor in the decision, Bryant said his reasoning was simple: The Cowboys were still in the playoff hunt. Had Dallas been eliminated, he said he might have gone ahead with surgery. There's some personal incentive, too. Two more 100-yard games would give him six for the season and probably push him past 1,300 yards. With that kind of production, he could end up leading the league in touchdowns. He might go to his first Pro Bowl.
"I know that you go by catches and yards and touchdowns, but I go by how many times he does the right thing, makes the right choice, runs the right route, the depth that he's at, the timing that he came out, his ability to read the coverage," Romo said. "You know there's a lot of stuff involved and he didn't do as well in the beginning of the year, but he's really come on as of lately."
Bryant's come so far, the Cowboys are trusting him to call the shots.