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Cowboys emulating past Super Bowl champs, including the Eagles

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The evolution of the Cowboys offense continues.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys-Minicamp Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

By now, everyone knows that the 2018 Dallas Cowboys will be without a true #1 wide receiver on their roster. Some have argued (ahem... me) that the Cowboys have been without one for a few seasons. Dez Bryant still gets called one by many, but there are several factors that run counter to that notion, including his recent statistics, his impact on the game and defenses, and the fact that the offense was much more efficient in 2016 when Cole Beasley was the de facto #1 WR.

But now we can dispense with all the Bryant arguments and accept the fact that the Cowboys are going to a receiver-by-committee approach. It’s been pointed out several times on these pages that recent history in the NFL shows that not having a true #1 WR isn’t necessarily a bad thing. While there are opinions that the Cowboys are clinging to these arguments just because of the situation they find themselves in, it’s hard to ignore the facts. Dallas Morning News scribe Rick Gosselin is the latest to lay out the argument that having a #1 WR isn’t really necessary.

There have been 18 Super Bowl champions since 2000. Seven of the champs did not have a 1,000-yard receiver, and 11 of them didn’t have a wideout catch at least 80 passes. Only two of the last 18 champions had wide receivers voted to the Pro Bowl -- the Packers with Greg Jennings in 2010 and the Colts with Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne in 2006.

The Philadelphia Eagles won the Super Bowl last season without a Pro Bowl wide receiver. The Eagles also didn’t have a 1,000-yard receiver. Their leading receiver, tight end Zach Ertz, finished 19th in the NFL in catches in 30th in yards.

Loaded in with that argument above, Gosselin notes the fact that Tom Brady has been winning Super Bowls with an assortment of run-of-the-mill receivers for years, and when he did have a stud #1 WR like Randy Moss they didn’t win it all. The caveat with that is that we’re talking about Tom Brady, his ability to win Super Bowls is exceptional.

Continuing with the Eagles theme from above, Dez Bryant actually caught more passes than any Eagles wideout in 2017.

Bryant caught more passes (69) last season than Agholor, Jeffery or Smith, yet the Cowboys made him a salary-cap casualty. Agholor caught 62 passes, Jeffery 57 and Smith 36 in 2017 and that trio combined for only two 100-yard games.

So if the Cowboys jettisoned Bryant and hope to emulate the Eagles, they would need to do a couple of things. Alter their offense to utilize all the receiving weapons, and get receivers who can create separation. The Eagles did exactly what the Cowboys hope to do this year.

Without a [Jerry] Rice or [Michael] Irvin on the flank, Philadelphia quarterbacks Carson Wentz and Nick Foles threw the football where their reads of the defense took them. They didn’t have to force passes to anyone. Follow your progression and someone will be open.

And that’s the type of passing offense the Cowboys will have in 2018 with this young receiving corps. The ball will go where Dak Prescott’s reads take him. It may be Cole Beasley one week and Michael Gallup the next.

This is the exact argument made by many over this offseason. Tony Romo was a gambler who could throw receivers open, and Bryant was the perfect specimen for that type of quarterback when Dez was at the peak of his physical prowess. But age and injury have slowed Bryant down, and Dak Prescott isn’t the same type of QB as Romo, he is much more careful with the ball and wants to spread it around.

From 2011-2014, either Dez Bryant or Jason Witten was the leading receiver. Romo trusted his stars and fed them, it worked for them, but it bogged down under Prescott. Dak turned to Beasley on 2016, but in 2017 teams were not going to allow that, so they bracketed the slot receiver underneath and the Cowboys passing offense wasn’t the same. Yes, the team had multiple issues on offense including Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension and Tyron Smith’s injury. But the passing offense went stale. The chemistry between Prescott and Bryant was never like it was with Romo and Bryant. On top of that, Dez ran into a case of the dropsies.

In 2018, the Cowboys want to free their young quarterback from the pressure of having to feed a demanding receiver who was once a superstar but has started to fade. They want to give Prescott an array of receivers, most of whom are excellent route-runners who can create separation and allow Prescott to read defenses, make his progressions and hit the open target. The Cowboys under Garrett (in truth this goes all the way back to Norv Turner) are descendants of the Air Coryell offense, a power running game with a vertical passing game. They liked to push their outside receivers downfield and stretch the field vertically. Then guys like Cole Beasley and Jason Witten could work the underneath area. The defense was in a pickle because they couldn’t concentrate on the whole field so they were in a “pick your poison” situation. When Dez was at his peak, this worked very well. Romo liked to throw deep when he could, and would wait as long as he could for those routes to open up.

They may have to alter that more and more this year. With RPOs and a quarterback who can also pick up yards with his feet, the Cowboys running game has undergone a small evolution. This year, the vertical passing game may see its own evolution with less concern about throwing the ball downfield, and more emphasis on hitting anyone who is open. Smart coaches have always altered their scheme to fit their personnel. One of the complaints recently for the Cowboys is their stubbornness about sticking to their script no matter what. Perhaps this move in receiver philosophy is an indicator that the Cowboys offense overall is undergoing a renovation.

Earlier this year, when discussing the Dak-friendly offense, the quarterback himself mentioned specific teams the Cowboys may start copying. The Eagles weren’t one, but the Chiefs and the Panthers were. Those teams utilize a lot more elements from the college game that are becoming more popular in the NFL today. The Cowboys seem to realize Prescott’s strengths and are determined to build an offense around that. Dallas isn’t preforming a strategic retreat by dumping the #1 WR concept, they are building a counter-attack that is relying on their tactical strengths.