IRVING, Texas (AP) — Matt Cassel was enjoying his first win as the Dallas starter when the question of getting the ball to Dez Bryant came up after the game in Washington.
The Cowboys quarterback knew the right answer, and didn’t hesitate at all to give it: He had to get better at finding the All-Pro receiver.
Cassel may be new to Dallas, and merely filling in for Tony Romo, but the 33-year-old has been here before. He replaced an injured Tom Brady for almost the entire 2008 season in New England. And the Patriots had a vocal receiving star in Randy Moss.
“All those guys have a competitive edge to them, and that’s the reason that makes them so good,” Cassel said Wednesday. “At the same time, it’s my job obviously to, in whatever capacity I can, continue to get him the ball and do those things, but also be open with him and talk to him and try to alleviate some of those issues that might come up.”
Bryant was particularly mouthy on the sideline after Cassel didn’t see him on what could have been a touchdown against a blitz by the Redskins in the first half Monday night. He went three periods without a catch.
But the pair connected three times for 62 yards in the fourth quarter of a 19-16 victory, starting with a 42-yarder that set up a tying field goal. The other two were the key catches on a drive to the winning field goal in the final seconds.
“I was really pleased with how he worked his way through that frustration and showed up late in the game to make a difference for our team,” coach Jason Garrett said of Bryant.
Cassel came to the Cowboys from Buffalo in a trade two weeks into the season after the first of Romo’s two broken left collarbones. He was thrust into the starting job when Dallas decided backup Brandon Weeden wasn’t the answer after three straight losses.
At that point, Bryant was still out with a broken right foot, and even when he returned, practice time was limited. Bryant had his only 100-yard receiving game of the year (104 yards) in his second game back with Cassel before Romo returned two weeks later.
Now that Romo is out again and Bryant is close to healthy after also battling a knee issue, Cassel is getting his best chance to build a rapport with Bryant while the Cowboys (4-8) are somehow still alive in the NFC East with a visit to Green Bay (8-4) coming Sunday.
“I think it always takes time. There’s no doubt about it,” said Cassel, who lost four starts before Romo’s return and won the first game after the Dallas star was injured again. “I think Dez and I haven’t had a lot of time on task, but at the same time, I think we’re definitely getting to learn one another.”
Bryant, who has had a testy relationship with reporters this season, chatted informally with a few of them Thursday, smiling a lot and even saying he wasn’t bothered by getting shut out most of the Washington game.
Last year’s NFL leader in receiving touchdowns is also returning to the scene of his catch that wasn’t in a playoff loss to Green Bay last season, an outcome he said left him moping on his couch for two weeks.
But Bryant said he’ll be trying to put the hotly debated play behind him on game day. And his quarterback for the rematch wasn’t even there in January.
“You’ve got to guard against, ‘I’ve got to get someone the ball early,’ because the defense has a game plan,” offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. “Dez is certainly a game-changing player for that. It’s something we’re working on. I don’t think since the return we’ve been able to do it as consistent as we’d like.”
Then again, the Cowboys haven’t had a consistent practice plan. First, Cassel didn’t have Bryant at all. Then after three games together, back came Romo. And then out went Romo again. But Bryant’s health might be the key to the issue.
“I think the further we move away from his surgery and everything,” Cassel said, “you get more opportunities out there on the practice field to continue to build that relationship.”
And Cassel’s been around long enough to know how important that is.