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Dallas Cowboys coaching spotlight: Wide receivers coach Sanjay Lal

The state of the Cowboys’ receiving corps has been talked about a lot, and their success hinges on the new position coach.

Buffalo Bills v New York Jets Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

After the 2017 season ended, Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett decided to make some wholesale changes to the structure of the Dallas Cowboys to avoid another disappointment, if 9-7 can really be called a disappointment. While offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli both remained with the team, much of the staff around them has changed. This series is meant to profile each coach, including the ones who stayed, and analyze how their presence will contribute to the 2018 Dallas Cowboys. Today, we are looking at the Cowboys coach with perhaps the biggest challenge this year, Sanjay Lal. Be sure to check out our other profiles below:

Jason Garrett
Scott Linehan
Kellen Moore
Gary Brown

The two biggest, positive changes the Cowboys made to their team this offseason would be the hiring of Kris Richard to be the defensive passing game coordinator/defensive backs coach (the best move), and the second best move was the hiring of Sanjay Lal as the receivers coach. A profile of Richard is coming soon, but for now, let’s talk about Lal. After all, he’s got a big task coming into 2018 with the loss of Dez Bryant and Jason Witten, alongside the injury of both Terrance Williams and his car. With Lal, though, big schematic changes are on the horizon.

First, though, we must look at what the Cowboys have been doing at receiver. Derek Dooley was the Cowboys’ receivers coach since 2013. This wasn’t a good hire, personally speaking, as he hadn’t coached receivers since 1999 at SMU, and since then he had a memorably terrible three-year run as head coach of the Tennessee Volunteers. He brought a very passive and predictable voice to the receivers group. He looked at the traditional receiver positions - X receiver, Z receiver, and slot receiver - and simply found players who fit those molds. Bryant was an obvious X receiver, which is typically reserved for the No 1 receiver on a team, and Williams, a dependable player with very good blocking skills, was a prototypical Z receiver. Cole Beasley was an obvious slot receiver given his size, quickness, and hands. Occasionally, Brice Butler would substitute for either Williams or Bryant as their deep threat, given his elite speed.

The issue, though, was that Dooley ran his receivers by the book. The closest thing to creativity he had was the Butler substitution. Niche receivers like Dwayne Harris, Lucky Whitehead, and Ryan Switzer were all wasted by Dooley, who never thought to devise routes to get these explosive players the ball in space, where they can do damage after the catch. Furthermore, Dooley lacked the ability to develop his receivers. The biggest knock on Williams coming out of the draft was his inability to make catches outside the numbers, and he relied too much on pinning the ball with his body to secure it. Dooley never fixed that. Beasley, who is admittedly limited on what he can do due to his stature, was never used as more than a slot receiver. Bryant, whose biggest weakness was a limited amount of routes he could run, never developed new tricks or routes, and on plays where he wasn’t the first or second read, he lightly jogged his route with little to no effort. Dooley never fixed that.

Now, Dooley is going to be the offensive coordinator for the Missouri Tigers.

Lal has been a receivers coach since 2009, when he spent three seasons in Oakland. While there, he employed a vast amount of receivers in a variety of different ways. For instance, in 2010 the Raiders had six different receivers with at least 300 receiving yards, and three of those six receivers had over 500 yards on the season. The next year, Lal took the distribution of targets and receptions to a new level: there were 12 different players with triple digits in receiving yards. That included Darrius Heyward-Bey with 975 yards and rookie Denarius Moore getting 618 yards. Furthermore, over that three year stretch, Oakland’s running backs - Michael Bush, Darren McFadden, and Marcel Reece - combined for 2,277 receiving yards. His ability to work with running backs and their coaches to get them involved in the passing game could mean good things for Ezekiel Elliott, who only has 58 catches through his first two years despite averaging almost 11 yards per reception and scoring three times on passes. Additionally, Tavon Austin (a receiver turned running back who’s reportedly going to be used as a receiving “web” back) and fullback Jamize Olawale can contribute in meaningful ways as pass catchers, too.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys-OTA Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

After Oakland, Lal went to New York to try and light a spark in the Jets’ lowly passing offense. With Mark Sanchez and later Geno Smith throwing passes, Lal had his work cut out for him. Still, his receiver-by-committee approach worked. In 2012, he managed 2,665 total receiving yards from the likes of Jeremy Kerley, Clyde Gates, Braylon Edwards, Jeff Cumberland, Dustin Keller, Chaz Schilens, Stephen Hill, and Santonio Holmes. The next year, he upped it to 3,067 total receiving yards from a receiving unit consisting of Bilal Powell, Kerley, David Nelson, Kellen Winslow, Cumberland, Hill, Holmes, Gates, and Greg Salas. In 2014, despite the team going 4-12, Lal’s unit managed 2,846 total receiving yards, including Eric Decker totaling 962 yards and five touchdowns.

After leaving the Jets, Lal spent three seasons between the Buffalo Bills and Indianapolis Colts with similar success. In fact, his first season in Buffalo resulted in Sammy Watkins having his first and, so far, only 1,000+ yard season. All of this should be encouraging to Cowboys fans. After all, Watkins couldn’t even break 600 receiving yards in Sean McVay’s offense. The fact that Lal got Watkins 1,047 yards indicates the coach can get the best out of his players. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan has even said as much:

“I can already see a lot of things out here that are a direct impact of what he’s teaching,” Linehan said. “He just kind of gets the position. He played it. He was one of those, I don’t want to call him an overachiever type, but he was one of those guys who had to get the most out of his own abilities. He sees that in players who have the ability beyond that. He’s been great.”

And getting the most out of these players is exactly what he’ll have to do. Between the injury and his recent off-field antics, who knows if Williams will be on the team by the start of the season? After him, Beasley would be the longest tenured Cowboys receiver. Lal will find plenty of ways to utilize Beasley, and his chemistry with Dak Prescott will only help. Allen Hurns will take some of the load that belonged to Bryant, but keeping him healthy will be the key. Deonte Thompson and Tavon Austin can be used as vertical threats, stretching the defense with their speed. Austin, as well as rookie Michael Gallup, will also likely be used in short pass plays that set up blockers, as both are dangerous receivers after the catch. Another rookie, Cedrick Wilson Jr., figures to be key in the committee with his clean route running, while Noah Brown is a physical type who can go after jump balls and back shoulder fades. And then there’s Lance Lenoir, a guy who’s spent time on the Cowboys practice squad whose crisp route running has impressed many so far in OTA practices, including David Helman and even Lal:

One of the valuable things about Lal is his attention to the finer details of route running that often include unorthodox drills. Through a combination of teaching good route running and the rotation of receivers he employs, Lal has found success at each stop along his career despite the talent he had to work with. One of the pieces of this new “Dak-friendly” offense is emphasizing the ability for receivers to get open and letting Prescott throw to whomever is open, as opposed to trying to feed any one receiver in certain situations. Prescott, who is highly adept at going through progressions in an efficient manner, should benefit from Lal’s route running expertise.

The Cowboys receiving unit is certainly getting its fair share of criticism from so-called experts. But their differing types of talent, coupled with the way Lal coaches his receivers and switches them out based on the situation, should yield success in this offense. Don’t expect any of these receivers to break 1,000 yards, but the sum of their production should be enough for Prescott to put together another prolific outing as quarterback, with all of it being anchored by the dominance of Elliott and the Great Wall of Dallas.

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