Dez Bryant recovers in red zone

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Dez Bryant's issues have been discussed and debated as much as any second-year wide receiver in NFL history.

His ability to catch the football never comes up in those conversations.

That's what made the Dallas Cowboys' final two offensive snaps in the first half Sunday so stunning. Tony Romo put a pair of passes between the 8s on Bryant's jersey. Bryant should have ended up celebrating in the end zone on both plays, but the ball clanked off his shoulder pads on a slant and clunked off his hands on a fade, forcing the Cowboys to settle for a field goal.

"Oh, man, I was pissed because it should have been a touchdown," Bryant said. "And I put it all on me because I had two opportunities and I let them go to waste."

Then he went out in the second half and made up for his mistakes in a 34-7 rout of the winless St. Louis Rams at Cowboys Stadium.

Bryant set season highs with five catches for 90 yards. It's significant that he caught four balls for 66 yards in the second half, considering he had been shut out after halftime in every game but one this season. That's the type of production that is expected out of a receiver with such immense talent.

The Cowboys' most dynamic weapon punctuated his performance with a contested 20-yard touchdown reception, beating man coverage by Rams cornerback Josh Gordy to catch a perfect throw from Romo. It was a major mismatch, but given Bryant's gaffes before the half, it was a display of confidence by head coach Jason Garrett to call a play for Bryant in the red zone.

"I was like, I have to make a play," Bryant said. "If the ball was thrown out of bounds, I have to stretch for it and try to get my leg in. Gotta give them a reason [to come back to him] and just thank them for it."

Bryant showed his appreciation for Garrett by bear-hugging the coach from behind on the sideline, lifting Garrett of the ground in celebration of the score.

"He's so excited about playing," Garrett said. "He has so much enthusiasm."

Bryant has even more ability than enthusiasm. That's why he's held to such a high standard despite still being in the beginning stages of learning how to play receiver in the NFL.

He's expected to be especially effective in the red zone, where the Cowboys had been awful this season. The more helpful members of the Metroplex media have been hollering for Garrett to give Bryant more opportunities to utilize his muscular physique, phenomenal leaping ability and outstanding hands -- a combination matched perhaps only by perennial Pro Bowl receivers Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald -- to finish drives for Dallas.

It doesn't take a Princeton degree to see that Bryant's production in the red zone merited more opportunities. Entering Sunday, he'd been targeted 11 times in the red zone during his career, catching nine of the passes and scoring on seven of them.

So it was pretty smart of Garrett to go to Bryant often as the Cowboys neared the goal line against the Rams.

And it was pretty strange to see Bryant not take advantage of those opportunities in the first half.

Bryant failed to get off a jam by elderly cornerback Al Harris on a fade route, resulting in an incompletion on the drive that ended with a Jason Witten touchdown catch. He didn't get his eyes on a fastball from Romo on a wide-open slant and dropped the ball. (Bryant said the cornerback got his hand under his facemask at the line of scrimmage -- lifting his lip to show a cut as proof -- but admitted that was no excuse.) And he simply failed to catch a pass on a fade over Harris, a play he can usually make after rolling out of bed.

"He doesn't drop very many," Romo said. "I suspect he got his quota out of the way for the year."

It was wise of Garrett to go back to Bryant in the second half.

The Cowboys didn't need a poor performance from Bryant to be a storyline after a blowout win. They didn't need Bryant to wonder whether the coaches and quarterback believed in him.

After the drops, Bryant jogged over to Garrett, apologized and vowed not to blow another opportunity. Garrett assured Bryant he'd get another chance.

They both made good on their promises in a second half on which Bryant can build.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.