Dez Bryant played through a broken finger, and now has a breakout season to show for it.
The Dallas Cowboys receiver was clear with coach Jason Garrett after he fractured his left index finger before catching a game-changing touchdown in a win earlier this month at Cincinnati. He intended to keep on doing it.
"When you are a football player and you see a guy be so unequivocal about that and say, 'I'm doing it, regardless of what the heck this thing is, I'm playing. I need to play,'" Garrett said. "I think it has a real positive impact on your football team."
So does a 58-yard touchdown, and then another one in the same game. Bryant so dominated both plays that he trotted the final 20 yards or so into the end zone. Although the Cowboys lost to New Orleans 34-31 in overtime last weekend, Bryant had a career-high 224 yards in his seventh straight game with a touchdown.
The big game against the Saints was the latest benchmark in a season full of them for the third-year pro.
Bryant has validated questions about his character with his penchant for off-the-field issues. He'll have to prove those problems are behind him during the offseason, but he's never been better on the field. His 10 touchdowns are easily the most among NFL receivers in the second half of the season.
Surgery that will be required on the finger can wait until after Sunday night's game at Washington, or longer if the Cowboys win the battle for the NFC East title. Bryant says the playoff chase was why he wanted to wait. Garrett doesn't doubt that.
"He has so many great qualities as a person," Garrett said. "He loves the game. He's very tough. He's very committed to his team and trying to be great."
Bryant is starting to show up next to some great names in the Cowboys record books. His touchdown streak is tied for the best in franchise history with Frank Clarke and Bob Hayes from the 1960s, and Terrell Owens. He and Owens are the only players to have the streak in one season. With 12 touchdowns, Bryant is three shy of Owens' club record from 2007.
At 1,311 yards, Bryant needs 85 more to break Hall of Famer Michael Irvin's hold on the top three seasons in Dallas history, although he's unlikely to reach Irvin's club record of 1,603.
"I just feel I have been on a hot streak," Bryant said. "Not just me but the team as a whole."
Tony Romo's trust in Bryant has grown despite a couple of episodes that contributed to the quarterback's two worst games early in the season. Bryant badly botched a route to cause one of five interceptions by Romo against Chicago, and his precision was off just enough to give the New York Giants one of four picks. Dallas lost both games and was 3-5 at the halfway point, when Bryant had just two touchdowns.
Tight end Jason Witten said precise routes were the keys to both 58-yarders against the Saints because Bryant was one of just two receivers downfield.
"There's no other place to go with the ball," Witten said. "He's just playing great, all areas of the position. I can't say enough about him."
It's not all about touchdowns, either. With the Cowboys trailing the undermanned Philadelphia Eagles and facing third-and-2 in the fourth quarter, Romo went deep to Bryant instead of short to Witten like he normally would in those situations. The 35-yard completion led to the go-ahead touchdown — to Bryant, of course.
"He's always wanted to practice hard ... 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," Garrett said. "He and Tony have a really good relationship and a good feel for each other, and it's showing up in how productive he's been."
Before the season, Bryant didn't figure to be setting a franchise standard for consistency among Dallas receivers. He was facing a family violence charge over a summer incident involving his mother, which came after incidents the previous two years involving lawsuits over unpaid bills and a sagging pants scene at an upscale Dallas mall.
Even early this year, Bryant was showing a hot-and-cold pattern similar to his first two seasons. He was strong in a big opening win over the Giants and a nonfactor the next week at Seattle. He followed a 110-yard game in the Giants rematch with a one-catch effort on a Sunday night against Atlanta.
That Falcons game was the last time he didn't score, and it was about the same time he reached a deal with prosecutors that could lead to dismissal of the family violence charge.
"He's growing before our eyes in so many different ways as a person and as a player since he's been here," Garrett said. "You see those strides literally, tangibly, in front of you every single day.