Professionally Speaking

Saturday fireworks between the Carolina Panthers and the Dallas Cowboys was not relegated to just the football field. With an electrical storm and torrential cloud bursts and a game time moved back to accommodate Mother Nature, the pre-season match-up between two also rans from last season seemed to be anti-climatic.

The Dallas 19 and Carolina 16 final score certainly indicates this to be true.

Preseason is a time for evaluation. Not the type of appraisal considering team play. Nor the grading out of even units as they take the field. But more the individual assessment of players trying to make the few openings the team has available. Saturday night was a scheduled quiz for players on both teams and the usual rerun of all the boringly non-descript games played in August before the real shooting begins September 8th.

Yet with the ho-hum nature of a meaningless game, one can take away small nuggets of promise as players go full throttle to impress. Such is the case with Saturday night's game. Tiny gems of a bright future shown through the rain clouds of Carolina.

Somewhere in the box score is the stats for Antonio Bryant. Five catches for forty-two yards will not remind of Fred Biletnikoff nor Jerry Rice. And as general managers peruse the box score they can point to a journeyman night and suggest they knew their stuff on draft day when passing on the troublesome receiver from Pittsburgh.

But what they fail to see in the stats are the nuances that indicate this player is special with a capital S. Not just football skills, because after all he is a receiver and they have been known to catch a pass on occasion. But heads-up plays that moves the chains and the team. Plays that speak to something other than a late second round selection with an attitude problem.

Dallas struggled trying to find a running game behind an offensive line that was more offensive than a line. The 2.9 yards per carry isn't anywhere indicative of the ineptness they showed early in the game.

The second half heroics of both Ennis Haywood and Woody Danzler inflated that anemic statistic to its pathetic heights. But as a caveat, the running game was playing behind a group with one starter in rookie Andre Gurode. Which is a testament to how important the health of the starting front five should be to the team and its 2002 success.

Taking a 10-point deficit late into the second half, Dallas was presented the opportunity to run a two-minute offense that had struggled in practice most of the week. With 57 seconds left on the clock, Dallas started on their own 32 yard-line needing to move down the field and get something in the way of points. Carter showed his field generalship as he moved in the pocket to buy time and find the open receiver.

Third and six from the 36-yard line, Carter didn't hesitate when throwing to Antonio Bryant. He ran a hook pattern in the flat and grabbed up the pass before turning up field. Two Carolina defenders were waiting to stop him short of the first down. He juked the cornerback and split between he and the linebacker to pick up 7 yards and a first down. The drive continued but more importantly the rookie showed game awareness as he did what was required to keep the chains moving.

Again Carter comes back to Bryant on the very next play. He turned the cornerback around with a step to the inside and had a three-yard cushion when Quincy delivered the ball. Bryant made a move after spinning toward the goal, but help was closing fast. Antonio turned and ran the ball to the sidelines, getting out of bounds to stop the clock and gaining 11 yards.

Bryant caught one more pass in that series as Dallas moved within field goal range for Tim Seder's 49-yard attempt. Dallas scored and pulled within a touchdown of Carolina on what amounted to perhaps one of the better drives this preseason.

None of the plays to Bryant will make ESPN's daily highlights. But after-the-catch yardage has become a stat du jour in the last few years, and Antonio showed his ability beyond his two preseason game experience.

Too many times over the last few years has a receiver for the Cowboys chosen to sit on a route just short of a first down. Then after catching the ball he fails to make the required yardage to move the chains. Bryant not only showed his recognition of the first down sticks, but also his understanding of the hurry-up offense and stopping the clock.

Without trying to make a comparison on two preseason games, the last time Dallas had a receiver this savvy was when Michael Irvin caught passes from Troy Aikman.

Later in the second half Bryant ran a slant on a third down play. Chad Hutchinson delivered the ball at the exact spot needed to gain a fist down. Yet the cornerback, who was obviously beaten on the play, grabbed Antonio's left hand preventing him from making the catch. The flag followed and Dallas was awarded a first down.

What certainly was missed in this play was the reaction of Bryant as the ball passed by his position. Only getting his right hand up he attempted to make a one-handed catch. But more importantly he deflected the ball over the head of the safety when the pass was uncatchable.

Bryant's intention on the play may have been to try and salvage something out of a bad situation. But his reaction also prevented a sure interception. The flag won't always come when a cornerback is successful in hiding his cheat. However, reviewing the play certainly indicated an alertness to the safety's proximity and Bryant's play averting a turnover. Again shades of Michael Irvin.

Coaches' grade on the small things in a game. Sometimes it's not what a player does but doesn't do that catches the most attention. Bryant did the little things making the team better on a night when very little went right.

The season is a marathon and not a sprint. So it remains to be seen how effective the rookie from Pittsburgh can be over the long haul. Especially sitting behind two veterans like Joey Galloway and Raghib Ismail.

But with the heads-up play by Bryant, and doing the small things that Irvin was known for. Perhaps the old adage of lighting never striking twice doesn't apply to the Dallas Cowboys.

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