The NFL officially began keeping track of targets in the 2009 season, and have since supplied that information all the way back to 2006. Targets are the number of passes thrown at a given receiver, irrespective of whether the receiver catches them or not.
Unfortunately, as a stat, targets are far from perfect. For one thing, figuring out who exactly a pass may have been targeted at is decided by the official scorekeeper, which by definition introduces a level of inaccuracy. Secondly, even if a ball is thrown badly, it often ends up going against the record of the receiver who was in the general vicinity of where the ball was thrown, even though he may not have had even the remotest chance of catching it.
However, targets are a good indication of which receivers have the quarterback's and the OC's confidence. So today we look at the last seven games to understand how the Cowboys have been distributing their touches in the passing game during their 5-2 run. Of course, at cursory glance, the Cowboys' passing game has been all about Dez Bryant over the last seven games. After all, Bryant has 10 of the Cowboys' 16 passing TDs over that span.
But a detailed look at the numbers gives you a more nuanced picture, and does away with some of the preconceptions we might have held about the Cowboys' passing game in the first half of the season. Here are the numbers for the passing game for the last seven games:
As you would expect, Bryant is Romo's primary target, especially on scoring plays. But Jason Witten is just as much Romo's got-to guy as Bryant has become - both have been targeted almost the same amount of times. Bryant's 71.9% reception percentage is worth a particular mention here. A number above 70% is highly unusual for a wide receiver. In fact, it is usually only achieved by elite tight ends.
This season, there are only four players among the top 40 receivers with a reception rate above 70%. Tony Gonzales (76.5%), Jason Witten (72.5%) and Heath Miller (70.3%) are the three tight ends at the top of the list, and are only surpassed by Green Bay's Randall Cobb with a phenomenal reception rate of 76.9% for the season. For the season, Bryant is already ranked eighth on that list with a reception rate of 67.7%. His 71.9% over the last seven games would rank him second among all wide receivers.
Unfortunately, as good as those numbers are for Witten and Bryant, Austin's 54.3% reception rate has got to be disappointing. Austin has five dropped passes to his name in the last seven games, and those drops clearly impact his numbers.
As we move down the WR depth chart, we see a dynamic where Dwayne Harris appears to have grabbed the No.3 wide receiver spot, at least in terms of targets and production. Ogletree still leads Harris in terms of offensive snapcount, but Harris is getting a lot more looks in the passing game than Ogletree does. To a certain extent that also applies to Cole Beasley, although 13 of his targets came in one game, the first Redskins game in November.
The other thing of note here is the overall role of the third wide receiver: After the top three guys (Bryant, Witten, Austin) the third wide receiver is not the fourth option, but the fifth. The fourth option in the Cowboys passing game is whoever is playing running back.
In this context, it's important to know that since DeMarco Murray returned to action, Felix Jones has not been targeted once in four games. Whether this is because his shoulder injury is acting up, or the Cowboys prefer Murray as a receiver is unclear, and it doesn't matter all that much anyway, as all the backs are impressive receivers, each notching an 80% reception rate over the last seven games (albeit on a small sample size). Only four backs in the league (Jacquizz Rodgers: 88.2%, Ronnie Brown: 82.8%, C.J. Spiller: 82.0%, LeSean McCoy: 80.3%) have better rates.
The key takeaway here is that the Cowboys' passing game is not predicated on just one or two players, it's much more about spreading the ball around. And even if the Redskins find a way to double- and triple-team Bryant or find a way to cover Witten in any form (highly unlikely, given their LB unit), the Cowboys should have enough capable receiving options on the roster to keep the passing game going.
Earlier in the season, Jason Garrett reflected on his philosophy of spreading the ball around among his receiving weapons:
"We believe in our offensive football team, and we believe you have to be able to use all the weapons at your disposal and attack different ways."
"You can find something bad in our offense every week. Dez catches 10, what happened to Ogletree? That’s a philosophy you can take, but our philosophy is everyone has a role, and everyone can do their job to the best of their ability. The quarterback throws to the right guy, and let’s keep going on. Whoever the right guy to make the play at the time, he’s got to make the play."
On Sunday, the Cowboys play one of the most porous secondaries in the league: The Redskins have allowed 4,315 passing yards so far this year, the third highest total in the league. Since the Cowboys' passing game is not about just one or two players, and much more about spreading the ball around, the passing game should be clicking on Sunday.
Who do you think will lead the Cowboys' receivers on Sunday?
And if you feel particularly strongly about a Cowboys player, why not build a fantasy team around him? Won't take you more than five minutes, and you might even get to see your name on the leaderboard next week!