In the early stages of Monday night’s game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Detroit Lions, the contest looked like exactly what it was: a game between a Dallas team with nothing left to prove and a Detroit team one win from a playoff spot.
But the Cowboys flipped the script on the Lions right before halftime and held Detroit scoreless in the second half with an excellent defensive performance that bodes well for Dallas come playoff time. However, it was the catalyst on the other side of the ball that could be the real difference-maker for the NFC’s No. 1 team. For just the second time this season, Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant hauled in two touchdown passes, and for the first time in his career, he threw one as well. All three TDs were part of the Cowboys pouring on 28 unanswered points in a 42-21 drubbing of Detroit.
For Bryant in particular, it was the type of performance that has been too rare over the last two seasons, but the catches and plays he made were vintage Dez, using his physical ability to make catches in tight spaces near the end zone. That’s become his specialty on his way to 67 career touchdowns, eighth among active players, and something that always made Tony Romo look for him in the red zone. At times this season, Dak Prescott has tried to force similar throws, but until Monday night, the timing wasn’t there and Bryant was a bit of a non-factor for a Dallas offense that was rolling anyway.
While Romo often felt the need to get the ball into the hands of Bryant, his primary playmaker, Prescott has instead been coached to spread the ball around to guys like Cole Beasley, Brice Butler, Terrance Williams and Jason Witten, while the offense has been led by Ezekiel Elliott running the ball with force. However, if the Cowboys can add a play-making Bryant back into their offensive repertoire as the postseason approaches, they could be even more dangerous on that side of the ball than previously thought. According to Dez, it was all about waiting for his moment.
“My first thing that came to mind was contributing to success,” Dez told ESPN’s Steve Young after the game. “[Dak and Zeke] are absolutely amazing. You stand behind them. You don’t try to get in front of them. You have to give it to them. Those guys came in, they’re competing for the MVP, come on, who does that? That’s two rookies we’re talking about and they’re competing for the MVP, so you stay behind them and let them do work.”
That’s what Dallas has done all season, and so, while Prescott and Elliott have been the shining stars for Dallas, it’s been an up and down year for Bryant, who missed three games due to a knee injury early in the season and hasn’t always factored into Dallas’ game plan even when healthy. In 12 games played this season, he’s now up to 796 yards, 50 catches and eight touchdowns, fairly pedestrian numbers for a player who, from 2012-14, averaged more than 90 catches, 1,300 yards and 13 touchdowns per season.
The truth is, Dez simply hasn’t been the same player since a foot injury essentially torpedoed his 2015 season. He played in nine games last year but was far from 100 percent for most of them and his season numbers (31 catches, 401 yards, three touchdowns) reflected that. But 2016 was supposed to be a bounceback year for No. 88. He spent much of the offseason working with Romo, shaking off the rust that both had built up during their lost 2015 seasons.
“I think it doesn’t make a difference, but there is nothing wrong with knocking the rust off,” Bryant said in June. “I just think something me and Tony established a long time ago. It’s something that can’t fade because that’s something we truly committed ourselves to, being on the same page, it’s all about just tuning it and going to work.”
In training camp and the preseason, it looked like they’d tuned in just fine.
Then Romo got hurt and Prescott was forced to take over. Bryant was basically a spectator in Dallas’ Week 1 loss to the Giants, targeted five times with just one catch for eight yards. In a Week 2 game against the Redskins, it appeared as though he’d found a rhythm with Prescott, who targeted him 12 times. Dez hauled in seven of those for his first 100-yard receiving game since November of 2015. But the next week Bryant got hurt in a win over the Bears.
He didn’t return until Week 8, a Sunday night game against the Eagles, and it was clear that night that Prescott was trying to force the ball to Bryant, at times nearly to his detriment. He was targeted 14 times but hauled in just four of those throws, though he did rack up 113 yards in the win. From that point on, however, Bryant’s targets were sporadic. He was targeted just four times and had only one catch in a win over the Browns, then hauled in six of nine targets including a touchdown and posted a season-high 116 yards in a win over the Steelers the following week. He was a big factor in the team’s win over Baltimore in Week 11, but Prescott missed him open several times on Thanksgiving Day against the Redskins. He had some big plays in a win over Minnesota, but then was neutralized in a loss to the Giants.
Last week’s game against Tampa Bay was the first time Bryant had been targeted 10 or more times since his return against Philadelphia. The result was a solid eight catches for 82 yards, but no touchdowns. Those came in a bunch on Monday night, even if Dez was only targeted five times against Detroit.
The first of those targets resulted in Dallas’ first first-down of the game, an 18-yard gain on 2nd and 15. It was part of a nine-play, 66-yard drive that put the Cowboys on the board first. Bryant wasn’t targeted again until late in the first half when he picked up another big first down as the Cowboys looked to rally from their only deficit of the game. Then came one of the biggest plays of the game when Prescott put some faith in Bryant to make a play and the wideout delivered in a big way.
On 3rd and 7 from the Detroit 25, Prescott saw Bryant isolated to his left one-on-one with Lions cornerback Johnson Bademosi and instead of trying to pick up a chunk for the first down, the quarterback went for it all, lofting a beautiful deep ball toward the end zone that only Bryant could catch. Dez was severely interfered with by Bademosi — and may have gotten away with a facemask of his own — but still hauled in the pass, juggling the ball against his body before securing it while going to the ground for the touchdown. The score tied the game at 21-21 at the half.
Prescott targeted Bryant again on Dallas’s first drive of the second half, deep down the right sideline toward the end zone, and though Bryant didn’t make the catch he did draw another interference call, this one on Detroit’s Nevin Lawson, which set the Cowboys up inside the five. Elliott finished off the drive with a touchdown run that put Dallas in front for good.
The next time Dez touched the ball was on one of the most beautifully designed plays of the year. Dallas ran a reverse with Prescott motioning right and pitching to Bryant, who crossed behind him, running right to left. The play used the threat of Bryant running the ball to pull the defense in, and Bryant then passed to a wide-open Jason Witten for a 10-yard touchdown.
“It was a play-call we’ve worked on for a long time. When I got in the huddle, I called it like any other play and didn’t really give anyone the chance to think that Coach just called the trick play, just let’s go execute it,” Prescott said. “It was simple for me, just get Dez the ball. It was beautiful. The defense reacted and Dez made a great throw.”
“Dez is like a little brother to me, he really is,” Witten added. “I’ve told you guys before how proud I am of him and who he’s become. He had a great night, some big catches. He and Dak are on the same page and really connecting. That was a great moment for us.
Prescott had one more reward for Bryant on his big night, too, as the Cowboys put the game away on their next drive. The Cowboys rode reserve running back Darren McFadden as the game crossed into the fourth quarter and appeared content to just run the ball and salt the game away. But from just inside the red zone, on 2nd and 8 from the 19, they called Bryant’s number again. Again he was one-on-one with Lawson and Prescott simply gave his receiver a chance to go up and make a play on a jump ball, which Bryant did before taking it into the end zone for the game’s final touchdown.
“It’s funny,” Prescott said after the game of the single coverage on Bryant. “They believe in their guy, I believe in my guy. We’ll see who wins.”
That’s the most important part of all this, Prescott believes in Bryant to win. Truthfully, Dez doesn’t have the same skillset that made him one of the best receivers in the game over a three-year span from 2012-2014, injuries have sapped him of at least half a step, if not a full one, for this season. But he still has the physical ability to make a play one-on-one and go get the ball against any defensive back in the league.
So if Prescott continues to believe in Bryant the way he did on Monday night, something that generally doesn’t go away once it’s developed, and more importantly if Dez continues to win on those opportunities, the Cowboys will be that much more dangerous and there could be a lot more winning in their future come January.