Cowboys need Dak Prescott-to-Dez Bryant connection to heat up fast

FRISCO, Texas -- On a beautiful California day last month, Dak Prescott was nearly perfect in a Dallas Cowboys training camp practice, completing 13 of 15 passes in team and seven-on-seven drills. Of those 13 completions, six went to Dez Bryant.

In the individual competetion period of practice, Bryant caught a touchdown pass against cornerback Orlando Scandrick and celebrated with a dunk on the goal post.

On that day, it looked like the Prescott-to-Bryant connection was ready for a breakout 2017.

So far in two regular-season games, Prescott has targeted Bryant 25 times and they have connected on nine receptions for 102 yards and a touchdown.

“They’ve made some good plays and other times not as good,” coach Jason Garrett said. “It’s just a byproduct of playing together and being in those situations over and over and over again and getting comfortable with each other.”

Last week’s loss to the Denver Broncos was the 15th regular-season game for Prescott with Bryant. They have combined for 59 receptions for 898 yards and nine touchdowns. In the final 15 starts with Tony Romo and Bryant in 2014 and ’15, the receiver had 61 catches for 975 yards and 12 touchdowns.

The statistics are comparable, however, Romo was in a far different spot in his career in those 15 games. In their first 15 starts together in 2010 and ’11, Romo and Bryant connected on 53 passes for 796 yards and seven touchdowns, but Bryant was a far different receiver then and used in a different role as well, compared to the past three-plus seasons.

The biggest difference in the Prescott-to-Bryant numbers and the Romo-to-Bryant numbers is the completion percentage.

In his final 15 starts with Romo, 66.3 percent of the passes thrown to Bryant were complete (61 of 92). In the first 15 with Prescott, just 48.8 percent of the throws have been completed (59 of 121).

“You have to look at it in the context of the throws,” Garrett said when asked about the “batting average” of a quarterback and receiver. “Sometimes a particular receiver might have a really high percentage, but you’re throwing him high percentage balls where you anticipate throwing and catching. And other times you’re more vertical with the receiver. You’re down the field more. You’re making more challenging throws where the percentage of the completion will be lower. Obviously you want to throw and catch them all and you want to have them for big gains, but that’s not always the case. But that’s why you watch the tape.”

In the loss to the Broncos, Bryant was targeted 16 times and he finished with seven catches for 59 yards. Two passes intended for Bryant were intercepted, including one that deflected off the receiver’s hands. Bryant broke up two more passes that could have been picked off by Aqib Talib.

“He’s still a jump-ball God out there,” Talib said after the game. “If you throw him the ball, he’s probably going to come down with it nine times out of 10.”

That hasn’t happened so far.

Only one receiver has been targeted more in the first two games of the season than Bryant. DeAndre Hopkins of the Houston Texans has been thrown to 29 times by either Tom Savage or Deshaun Watson and has 14 receptions.

According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Bryant has been targeted three times on throws 20 or more yards down the field and does not have a catch. Just one of his nine receptions has come more than 10 yards down the field. Only two completions have come outside the numbers.

Bryant has faced two of the better cornerbacks in the league in first two games of the season, in Janoris Jenkins and Talib. On Monday, he will likely see Patrick Peterson for most of the time when the Cowboys take on the Arizona Cardinals.

On NFL Network, Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders called Bryant one of the best receivers in the game but added a caveat.

“When Dez plays against a dog, Dez has to hunt,” Sanders said. “And the last few times Dez has gone against a real, pure, dominant corner, they haven't gotten the ball to him or he hasn't made his catches or he hasn't had productivity. ... I don't know where the inconsistency with he and Dak is, but you don't see this with Antonio Brown. You don't see this with Julio [Jones].”

At this point, it is impossible to determine yet if it is a Bryant issue or Prescott issue: Is Bryant slowing down after leg injuries forced him to miss 10 games in 2015 and ’16? Can Prescott become more accurate down the field?

But it has to get better if the Cowboys are going to be a productive offense.