Wide receiver Dez Bryant is the riddle many had feared when character issues allowed the Cowboys to take one of the best players in the 2010 draft late in the first round.
Don't look now, but Bryant has multiple 100-yard receiving games for the first time as a pro, and is coming off a career-high 145 yards and a critical fourth-quarter touchdown against Cleveland. Barring injury or another twist to the story, he'll probably have his first 1,000-yard season.
Now is as good a time as any to ask whether Bryant is finally arriving in his third season, though not even the ultimate Cowboys optimist is ready to give a definitive answer.
"The risk here is that he's in the glaring spotlight of being on the field and off the field for the Cowboys," owner Jerry Jones said. "So I'm reluctant that, we all are, to say that he's doing good. Dez is doing better."
Forget the numbers for a moment. The day after a potential resolution was announced in a domestic dispute with his mother, Bryant all but invited reporters to his locker so he could declare himself ready to put the "focus on football"—a phrase he repeated so often it made him laugh. Laughter of the right sort has been in short supply around Bryant most of his young pro career.
Three days later, he was there when Tony Romo needed him late in the game, matching the steady and reliable Jason Witten with three catches in the fourth quarter, including a 28-yard score that put Dallas ahead, and adding two more in overtime in the 23-20 Dallas win. Romo ended up throwing his way 15 times, and Bryant had 12 catches.
Afterward, Bryant was already talking about trying to do it again in Thursday's Thanksgiving game against Washington.
"With a win, it feels good," Bryant said. "Just got to put it behind me and get ready for Washington."
The previous two games at Cowboys Stadium, Bryant cost Romo an interception each time by not doing what his quarterback thought he would. Not that this time.
"He ran good routes, he was at his right depth and you see the kind of player he can be when he plays football at the level that he can," Romo said. "That's exciting to see his work ethic paying off."
Few have questioned how hard Bryant works in practice, but there have always been questions about how much time he spent with the playbook. The issue of judgment was even larger, mostly because the Cowboys knew it could be.
He lost most of his final college season at Oklahoma State when the NCAA suspended him after he lied about having dinner with former NFL cornerback Deion Sanders. He was criticized for missing team meetings and failing to bring the right shoes to his pro timing day.
Draft day was rough, too, because his name kept falling after he was projected as a top 10 pick. Despair turned to delight when the kid from East Texas was taken by the Cowboys at No. 24.
His first season in Dallas was uneventful—on the field, too. He missed four games and finished with just 561 yards even though he had a 100-yard game.
Then the trouble started. He was kicked out of an upscale Dallas mall in early 2011 for wearing his pants too low, and a week later, lawsuits surfaced alleging that he had nearly $1 million in unpaid bills from jewelry and game tickets, mostly racked up before he signed a five-year contract with $8.3 million in guaranteed money.
Another spotty season on the field in 2011 was followed by the most serious incident, this one involving his arrest last summer. According to an affidavit filed by police in the Dallas suburb of DeSoto, Bryant struck his mother, Angela Bryant, in the face with a ball cap and grabbed her T-shirt.
Bryant's mom didn't want to press charges, and prosecutors announced a deal last week that could lead to the dismissal of a misdemeanor family violence charge if Bryant isn't arrested and regularly attends anger management counseling for the next year.
Witten isn't sure a resolution of the case is the reason Bryant seems ready to be the Cowboys' No. 1 receiver. He just knows it's looking that way, particularly after Bryant helped beat the Browns with so many catches on shorter routes, not usually his strength.
"That's the other part of being a receiver," Witten said. "He understands, 'Hey, I'm a go-to guy.' And you know that he wants to be really, really good."
Bryant is still having some of those ill-advised moments, like a play against Cleveland where he easily could have run for a first down and inexplicably stepped out of bounds a yard short when defenders closed in. Afterward, he acknowledged he wasn't sure where the first-down marker was, although he was also trying to follow the advice of coaches not to always take on tacklers.
Three weeks ago, he followed his second 100-yard game of the season with one catch in a big Sunday night game at Atlanta.
"I'm hoping he disappears," Redskins coach Mike Shanahan said with a laugh. "No, he's a tremendous athlete. I think everybody knows that."
The question is whether he can be that go-to guy—all the time.
Follow Schuyler Dixon on Twitter at https://twitter.com/lschuylerd