OXNARD, Calif. (AP) — Dez Bryant took a couple of long pauses, first to search for a way to describe how he has matured and then to find the right word to describe skeptics who think he hasn’t changed at all.
The Dallas Cowboys All-Pro receiver could relax on the first day of training camp Thursday, thanks to the five-year, $70 million contract that was the only reason he was there in the first place.
And as much as he wants to show he’s not the same guy known early in his career for legal troubles and sideline antics, Bryant emphasized that money won’t change him after he threatened to skip camp and maybe even regular-season games without the long-term financial security he felt he waited too long to get.
“I’m glad that it got done,” said Bryant, last season’s NFL leader with 16 touchdown catches. “I’m excited I’m back with my teammates, and I think the beautiful thing about it all is it doesn’t feel brand new. That’s great. I’m glad that it’s the same.”
Even if he says he isn’t.
Bryant credited Jay Z’s Roc Nation talent agency with helping him refine his communication skills, although it was still hard for him to illustrate how they did it. Bryant’s representatives also had to work to get a deal with the Cowboys until the final hours before a July 15 deadline that would have forced him to play under a one-year deal, or not at all.
“They gave me a boost of confidence. And I thank them,” the 26-year-old said. “I’m cautious in a good way about the moves that I make.”
Bryant occasionally showed frustration on Twitter about how long it was taking for a long-term deal. But the posts were measured compared to the volatile player who’s been caught on camera screaming at players and coaches during games, or leaving the sideline before the clock ran out in a particularly painful loss.
Does he still have work to do? Sure. He dropped an expletive at the end of an answer about how he can’t pay attention when issues arise and people “overreact” — that’s the word he was trying to find during one of the pauses. He covered his sheepish smile with his hand, then pulled it away.
“I’m back,” he said, still smiling.
Fellow receiver Cole Beasley sees the same teammate.
Bryant wanted to toss a football almost as soon as he took the field for the first time. And while Beasley no longer had to worry about whether his “vocal leader” would be in camp, he did have to make sure he didn’t throw out his arm.
“He’s like an old kid, man,” Beasley said. “He comes out here and the first thing he wants to do is throw the ball around. It’s like he’s already loose when he gets out here. He can just throw the ball 50 yards without even warming up. My arm’s out here hurting, trying to throw it back to him.”
Quarterback Tony Romo already faced the prospect of moving on without NFL rushing leader DeMarco Murray, who signed with Philadelphia in free agency. Trying to follow the most efficient season of his career without Bryant as well would have been daunting.
“I told him, ‘It’s about time,’” Romo said of his first conversation with Bryant after the receiver signed. “But it was out of his control a little bit. I think I was just happy to see him.”
The lengthy negotiations — going back to last November — fueled speculation that the Cowboys were still worried about off-the-field issues, which also played a role in Dallas even having a chance to get him late in the first round after his draft stock fell in 2010.
The Cowboys have said there is no language in the contract specific to Bryant’s behavior, and that any clauses related to off-field issues are similar to the standard fare in other NFL deals.
“I actually think if that was I’ll say my second year in the league, I think it would have been crazy, it would have been horrible,” Bryant said. “I would have been tweeting some crazy stuff. I feel like I handled it the right way.”
“You’ve seen Dez as an older, more mature Dez,” Romo said. “He’s come a long way since he first stepped on the field here, and I think it’s exciting to see his growth as a player, as a person. He’s like a little brother to me.”
Bryant has more catches (381), yards (5,424) and touchdowns (56) than any receiver in franchise history through five seasons, topping a list that includes Hall of Famers Bob Hayes and Michael Irvin. And his presence erases a major distraction for a team trying to defend an NFC East title and make a Super Bowl run.
“I wasn’t really too worried,” said Beasley, who also signed a long-term deal this offseason. “I knew Dez wanted to be here. I knew they wanted him here.”
There were plenty of smiles to prove it in California.