There are plenty of factors in the Dallas Cowboys’ recent losses. Some, such as the absences of Ezekiel Elliott and Sean Lee, are painfully obvious. One that may not be so easily evident is the lack of firepower in the Cowboys’ receiver and tight end groups.
This past offseason, Dallas chose to bring the same crew back from last year’s promising 13-3 results. They already had Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, and Cole Beasley under contract. Terrance Williams was re-signed to a modest four-year, $17 million deal. They even brought Brice Butler back on a minimal one-year contract.
Ryan Switzer and Noah Brown were selected in the fourth and seventh rounds, respectively, of April’s draft. Those would prove to be the only moves that Dallas made to infuse some new talent at receiver.
At tight end, Dallas relied on the returns of James Hanna and Geoff Swaim from season-ending injuries to fill out the depth chart. They also had hopes for second-year project Rico Gathers, who’d spent 2016 on the practice squad.
So how are these guys doing so far this year?
Let’s start at the top. It has been a rough season for Desmond Demond Bryant, who despite playing in all 10 games so far is on pace to be below 1,000 yards and less than 10 touchdowns. These are hardly the numbers you want from a guy making franchise WR money.
Now I know what some of you are thinking. “Dez doesn’t get throw the ball enough! Of course his numbers are down!”
According to ESPN, Dez Bryant is tied for fourth in the NFL in targets this year. He has been thrown at 98 times, the same as Larry Fitzgerald. Only DeAndre Hopkins (117), Antonio Brown (114), and Jarvis Landry (107) have been credited with more targets so far this year.
Of the top-ten receivers in targets this year, WR or TE, Dez has the fewest catches and yards and the second-worst average for yards on his receptions. His longest single play this season was for 36 yards, which is the second shortest among the top ten.
Bottom line; Dez Bryant has been the least efficient franchise receiver in the NFL so far this year. The question for the Cowboys to figure out is how much of that is on Dez and how much of that is on his quarterback.
Dak Prescott doesn’t like to lob it up or throw into tight spaces, which is where Dez Bryant has made his money over his career. When Dak does try these throws, they looked forced and uncomfortable and have led to some turnovers. There is a clear compatibility issue between Bryant and Prescott.
That said, Dez isn’t the same guy who used to make plays on those tough throws. He is an old 29, with extra loss of athleticism from his physical style of play. That shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, because we’ve only been saying it since he entered the league in 2010. The way Bryant punishes cornerbacks, which Chris Collinsworth highlighted on Sunday, comes with a price. His own body has also suffered in these exchanges.
This is one of those debates where both things can be true at the same time. Dak doesn’t give Dez the best opportunity to succeed, but Dez isn’t as capable of success as he used to be. And because both things are true, it gives defenses even more freedom as they don’t have to be as concerned about Dez Bryant as they used to be.
Naturally, the trickle-down effect of Dez becoming less threatening hurts the rest of the receivers. However. that’s not their only problem this season.
Speaking of older guys… Jason Witten.
It pains me to talk of Jason as some fossil given that he was born just six days before I was. However, while we’re still both prime for watching Parks & Rec reruns and playing Cards Against Humanity, 35 is a tough age to be playing tight end in the NFL.
When we’re winning, Witten’s inability to get yards after the catch is something we can joke about. I’ve more than once compared him to your uncle playing touch or flag at the family picnic. But Jason’s decreasing threat level on the field is now a real issue for the Cowboys offense.
Witten is still such a fabulous route-runner that he can get open to make the catch. But that is where his plays end, and defenses are able to scheme for that accordingly. A safety or linebacker only has to be in the vicinity and they can close and make the tackle. There’s no threat of Jason going over the top, or beating his man to the edge and turning up field.
Like with Dez, there is less general fear factor now with Jason Witten on the field. Are you starting to see the cumulative effect that has on opposing defenses, and thus on the Cowboys’ ability to execute?
Nobody has taken a bigger hit to their production this year than Cole Beasley. Last year’s receiving leader has just 26 for 195 yards after 10 games. Cole has found the endzone four times, but that is the only saving grace to an otherwise low year.
While some of this is due to more throws going to Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams than in 2016, there is also a major drop in efficiency. Last year, Prescott and Beasley connected on 77% of the throws that went Cole’s way. So far in 2017, that number has plummeted to 59%.
Why is it harder for Beasley to get open? Last year’s surge has led to increased attention from opponents. Beasley is seeing more coverage than he used to, sometimes even double-teams from a corner and safety..
Consider that for a minute. Cole Beasley is getting double-teamed. Beasley; not Dez Bryant.
The Cowboys should be making defenses pay for that. Dez Bryant should be making them pay. The fact that it’s not happening goes back to our original premise; Bryant is no longer able to take over a game and make life easier for his teammates. The fact that a defense would rather double-team Beasley than Dez speaks volumes about how he’s now perceived.
Dallas used to make defenses pick their poison. For that to work, the poisons have to actually kill you.
This isn’t to say that Dak Prescott is totally absolved. Not even close. He has to work on throwing his receivers open with better ball placement. Dak also has to be more willing to take chances, and then figuring out the right times and situations to do it.
Sounds like Tony Romo in his first few years, doesn’t it?
Still, Romo rarely lacked a true top receiver to help make the offense work. From Terrell Owens to Miles Austin to a younger Dez Bryant, Tony had that guy who commanded respect at all times. He also had a younger Jason Witten putting together a Hall-of-Fame career.
Obviously, there’s nothing Dallas can do about it now. They have who they have for 2017. But clearly, even with Ezekiel Elliott out of Roger Goodell’s doghouse of horrors next season, the Cowboys have to address the WR and TE positions. They have to give Prescott more to work with in case Elliott were to be lost again for any reason, or even just if they came across a rushing defense who didn’t allow Zeke to produce.
Back in July, I wrote about the possibility of Dez Bryant being released after 2017. At a certain point, Dallas is going to have to ask itself what it’s getting for that $16 million cap hit each season.
As for Witten, we’ll see if Jason has another year in him. If he doesn’t retire, the Cowboys have to strongly consider bringing in someone to take over as the number-one or who can at least be more of a threat on passing downs. You have to put some fear back into your opponents. People respect the hell out of everything Jason Witten’s done in his career, but they no longer fear what he might still do.
Dallas has to restore the pick-your-poison offense, and to do that they have to add more lethal options next offseason. It just might be their biggest need, even more than anything on defense, for 2018.