National Football League
           === Odd Man Rush: Cowboys riding growth of Dez Bryant ===
 By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
 Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - 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
 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.
 Anything else?
 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
 "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
 "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
 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.
 12/28 13:39:47 ET