Dez Bryant dazzles one play and drifts the next. Miles Austin piles up touchdowns when he's not hurt. Kevin Ogletree stars on a big stage then virtually disappears.
Tony Romo has one of the ugliest numbers in the NFL with 13 interceptions, easily the most even though there are five rookie starters throwing plenty of passes. Still, the Dallas Cowboys quarterback is at least sharing the blame with wide receivers showing to be shaky alternatives to steady tight end Jason Witten.
Even when Bryant makes a brilliant play, something goes wrong. His leaping catch in the back of the end zone appeared to complete a crazy comeback against the New York Giants on Sunday, but the touchdown was overturned when replay showed his fingers hit the ground first — inches out of bounds.
Earlier, Bryant wasn't sharp enough on a crossing pattern and cost Romo the first of four interceptions against the Giants. He caused the first of five picks by Romo against Chicago by running a "go" route when Romo was expecting a "stop." The easy touchdown that resulted sparked a Bears blowout.
"We trust him to run the right routes, the routes that we ask him to do," said coach Jason Garrett, whose team visits undefeated Atlanta on Sunday night. "He's gotten a heck of a lot better at it. He just needs to do it more consistently."
The Cowboys posted plenty of pleasant numbers against the Giants. Romo threw for a career-high 437 yards, and Dallas had three 100-yard receivers in a game for the second time in franchise history. The other was in 1963. Witten set a team record with 18 catches and had a career-high 167 yards, while Austin caught nine passes for 133 yards and Bryant five for 110.
But even Garrett, not one to talk specifics very often, brought up one of the balls Austin didn't catch. Romo's second interception against the Giants was a throw the quarterback hopes — sometimes even expects — to be an incompletion at worst. Austin didn't react quickly enough, and wasn't in position to knock the ball away from New York's Corey Webster.
The play reminded Garrett of Hall of Famer Michael Irvin, the favorite target of Hall of Famer Troy Aikman.
"Michael Irvin's greatest trait, Troy Aikman would turn and throw it, 1-on-1, nothing bad is going to happen," Garrett said. "He's going to catch it or he's going to knock it down. Somehow, some way, 1-on-1 at the end of the day, Miles has got to knock that ball down."
Witten was actually part of the problem early in the season when he was trying to play with a lacerated spleen. He was dropping passes and understandably having a hard time getting around. It didn't him long to turn back into Witten, though. He's been the team leader in catches three of the past four games and is third in the NFL with 51.
"They're almost like running plays when you throw the ball to that guy, because he's so consistent and so reliable," Garrett said.
Those words have not been used to describe Dallas receivers in recent years. Bryant's production has been sporadic since he fell to the Cowboys late in the first round of the 2010 draft because of character questions. Since then, he's been the target of lawsuits over unpaid jewelry bills, and still has criminal charges pending after a domestic disturbance involving his mother.
Austin battled hamstring issues and declining production for two years after a breakout season in 2009. He's on track for a third 1,000-yard season if he stays healthy, and he's still scoring touchdowns. But he never explained his role in a clock management breakdown when the Cowboys had to settle for a 51-yard field goal that they missed in a 31-29 loss at Baltimore.
A week later, a fumble by Austin on a long completion against Carolina gave the sluggish Panthers life in the first half before the Cowboys rallied to win in the fourth quarter.
"We have to do a lot of things better," Romo said. "It not just one thing. We need to throw it better. We need to run routes good. We need to block. It comes down to a lot of things that make for turnovers sometimes."
Ogletree has held on to the third receiver spot essentially because he had a career day in the opening win against the Giants. Since those eight catches for 114 yards and two touchdowns, he has just 13 grabs for 134 yards and no scores. He was shut out in the rematch with New York.
"Production for me is wins," Ogletree said. "We've got to do a better job of closing ballgames."
Bryant thought he had closed the game against the Giants, and that was after he helped dig the 23-0 hole for Dallas with a botched punt return that led to one of six turnovers. Then there was the botched route on the Romo throw, which he acknowledged.
"I don't want to say I let him down, because I know Romo believes in me," Bryant said. "As you can see, as the game went on, he was still coming at me."
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