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What's wrong with the Dallas Cowboys' wide receivers?

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The Cowboys' wide receivers have not been as effective as they were last year. What's up with that?

Dallas Cowboys v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Standing at 4-3 after seven games, the Cowboys are two games behind the 6-1 record they had in both of their most-recent playoff seasons, 2014 and 2016.

But that doesn't necessarily mean they are playing worse this year than they did in those two previous seasons, at least not on offense.

Over seven games this year, the Cowboys have scored 198 points, two more than in 2014, and 10 more than in 2016. And there are more stats showing that the 2017 offense is holding its weight against the two previous playoff teams:

Stats after 7 games 2014 Cowboys 2016 Cowboys 2017 Cowboys
Points scored 196 188 198
Passer Rating 104.7 99.2 96.2
Passing TDs 14 9 14
Yards per rush attempt 4.8 4.9 4.9
Third Down Efficiency 57.4% 43.7% 43.8%
Red Zone TD % 66.7% 60.7% 62.1%

Passer rating is slightly down versus the previous two years, but still pretty strong. 14 passing TDs are in line with '14 and more than '16. The rushing game is as effective as ever. The third-down conversion rate does not reach the ridiculously high 2014 levels but is in line with last year, and even the redzone TD percentage is up versus last year.

But there is one stat on offense that is down quite a bit versus the previous two playoff seasons. Passing Yards per Attempt (Y/A) is significantly down versus the last two playoff seasons. Through seven games in 2014, the Romo-enabled passing game had a 8.4 Y/A, two years later, rookie Dak Prescott led the Cowboys to 8.0 Y/A through seven games, but this year, the Cowboys are only averaging 6.9 Y/A, which ranks them T-18th in the league.

Cowboys performance through seven games
Year Pass attempts Yards Gained Yards /Attempt
2014 214 1,789 8.4
2016 222 1,773 8.0
2017 228 1,571 6.9

This is potentially worrying, especially if you were wondering where the yards going to come from now that Ezekiel Elliott is gone. The last thing the Cowboys need is a passing game that's just not very effective.

The title of this post already contains a clue as to where that drop in production is coming from, but here's the reality of the Cowboys' 2017 passing game in stark numbers:

2016 (7 games) 2017 (7 games)
Passes to... Tgts Rec Yds Yards/Target Tgts Rec Yds Yards/Target
TEs 51 34 348 6.8 51 37 367 7.2
RBs 32 25 232 7.3 33 24 232 7.0
WR 137 85 1,193 8.7 143 82 954 6.7

Yards per target for tight ends (mostly Jason Witten) have increased slightly, moving from 6.8 to 7.2 yards. The value for running backs (mostly Ezekiel Elliott) is down slightly (7.3 to 7.0). But the big issue here is the drop in production from the wide receivers, whose yards per target drops by a full two yards versus last year to 6.7 yards.

If we isolate the wide receiver yards/target across the league through Week 8, those 6.7 yards rank the Cowboys' wide receivers 27th in the league, just one spot ahead of the Giants, who have a dreadful QB throwing to a non-existent WR unit.

To put it quite simply, if the Cowboys can't get the passing game to their wide receivers going, there is no way this team makes the playoffs.

A look at the numbers for each wide receiver shows that this is not a problem that's affecting just one receiver, production is down for all the top targets:

2016 (7 games) 2017 (7 games)
Passes to... Tgts Rec Yds Yards/Target Tgts Rec Yds Yards/Target
Beasley 46 37 443 9.6 31 18 141 4.5
Williams 31 22 336 10.8 32 21 216 6.8
Bryant 37 15 263 7.1 64 32 366 5.7
Butler 22 10 116 5.3 13 8 209 16.1
Whitehead 1 1 35 35.0
Brown 1 1 13 13.0
Switzer 2 2 9 4.5
Total WR 137 85 1,193 8.7 143 82 954 6.7

Cole Beasley's catch rate (rec/tgts) dropped from 80% over the first seven games last year to just 58% this year. And if that isn't bad enough, his yards per target dropped by nearly 50% to just 4.5 yards.

Terrance Williams has almost exactly the same number of targets and receptions as he did last year, but his yards per target also dropped significantly.

Dez Bryant meanwhile has seen an increase in targets and receptions, but a decrease in production, as his yards per target drop from 7.1 to 5.7.

There are 119 wide receivers in the NFL with at least 10 targets so far this season. Dez Bryant ranks 95th on that list in yards/target, Cole Beasley ranks 112th, and Terrance Williams ranks 70th. The only saving grace for the Cowboys is that Brice Butler ranks No. 1 on that list.

Dak Prescott's completion percentage is down a little from 65.2% to 62.8%, but that's not significant enough to explain the drop in wide receiver production. What is a little more significant is the drop in “big plays” from the 2017 offense.

The Cowboys consider any reception of 16 yards or more a "big play". Last year the Cowboys wide receivers had 25 such plays over the first seven games, this year they are down to 16. That drop in big plays is a big chunk of the difference between 6.7 and 8.7 yards per target.

But the absence of big plays can't simply be fixed by saying, “let's have more big plays!”

The Cowboys' receivers have to run deeper routes, and even more importantly, they have to get open on those deeper routes. If they don't, Dak Prescott will default to short, safe completions at the cost of the deep ball.

And if the trio of Bryant, Williams, and Beasley can't get the separation the offense needs, perhaps it's time give more targets to players that can get that separation.