Best move of the offseason. Will elevate his unit to the next level. Heir apparent to move up to the coordinator job. Maybe even head coach down the line.
All those are things that have been said about new Dallas Cowboys secondary coach Kris Richard. When his hiring was announced, people were absolutely giddy over what they thought he meant for the team. (And by “people”, I also mean me.) But after the first preseason game against the San Francisco 49ers, the shine has faded a bit for Richard as the defense, particularly the secondary, did a disappointing imitation of Swiss cheese at the end of the first half and for much of the fourth quarter. But, if you want to just base things on that game (and it is always perilous to use that as your basis for much of anything), every one of those glowing phrases to start this article could be applied to another first-year assistant: Wide receivers coach Sanjay Lal. While the secondary was having plenty of issues and seems to deserve the most blame for letting the 49ers score at the ends of both halves, the wide receivers ensured no one would be lamenting the absence of Dez Bryant - at least for the moment.
From the first drive, when rookie Michael Gallup ran a great route to score the first touchdown of the game, until the very end, when players like Marchie Murdock, Mekale McKay, and Ricky Jeune were giving Mike White decent targets to work with, the wide receiver group was arguably the most improved unit of the team overall. (OK, the linebackers may want to have a word about that, but on offense it seems clear.) And that was without Cole Beasley, who was left in Oxnard to help him get through a groin tweak. The lessons Lal has been driving home in training camp seem to have been well-learned. The routes looked crisp, which is hardly the norm in opening preseason games, there was some nice downfield blocking (Allen Hurns had a key block on the Dak Prescott run to keep the opening drive alive), and good hands were on display.
That last point brings to mind the odd drill that Lal has been using at the end of practices.
Cowboys WRs and WR coach Sanjay Lal continue to end practice by walking with 25-pound bricks in each hand pic.twitter.com/5b7rY7ndfx— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) August 1, 2018
At first, this looked like some kind of tribute to the sometimes bizarre drills former tight end coach Mike Pope used to put his charges through. But while the “brick drill” is, like Pope’s inventions, a nice example of out-of-the-box thinking, it makes a lot of sense for players whose grip strength is a key tool. It might just be paying off, too. Preseason games are often plagued by a lot of drops, especially late when the “fourth-team scrubeenies” (a term I happily steal from our old friend rabblerousr) are on the field. But those did not seem much of an issue for the Cowboys at any point in the game.
Of special note were two players who have something of a reputation for poor catching, Terrance Williams and Tavon Austin. Williams of course has a long-standing reputation as a “body-catcher”, while Austin was a player who let many passes slip through his grasp in his previous career stops. While it is admittedly a teensy sample size, TWill and Tavon both caught the balls that got to them. There was only one missed target, to Austin, and that ball was knocked away by the defense. If those two can continue to show improvement in grabbing and securing the football, then it seems the credit should go to Lal and his training. Another player who may have benefited from that is Lance Lenoir, who made a simply beautiful, toe-tapping touchdown grab that displayed all the traits you want in a wideout, from route-running and reading the defense, to awareness of where he was and concentration in securing the catch while getting those feet down.
Richard still has a lot of time to get the secondary up to speed. Byron Jones, Chidobe Awuzie, Jeff Heath, and Xavier Woods were not part of the problem in any case, with the issues mainly being the breakdowns in technique by Anthony Brown and the problems experienced by the myriad UDFAs trying to make the roster. But Lal also has a handful of rookies he’s working with, and they did not embarrass themselves the way Richard’s bunch did. As a matter of fact, the players at the bottom of the wide receiver group looked a lot closer in ability to those making the roster than was the case for the corners and safeties.
Again, it’s just one preseason game, and there is plenty of time for Richard to get the DBs whipped into shape. (And also for the WRs to stumble, but we are going to pretend that is not in the cards for now.) But right now, Lal has put a better product on the field. His role is also more key to improving the offense than Richard’s is for the D, since at the moment the defensive linemen and linebackers look to have made real strides over last year. Richard is thought to be in line to replace Rod Marinelli as retirement is always a possibility for the old Marine. But if Scott Linehan should move on in the next couple of years (especially if it is because the Cowboys’ offense is among the elite and Linehan gets another shot at head coaching), then Lal may have a real shot at replacing him - if, of course, he keeps things moving in the right direction. And if he becomes OC, then there is only one more step up he could take.
That is getting a bit ahead of ourselves, of course. Right now, the only thing Lal has really done is get his wide receivers to show some positive things that his hire was meant to bring. But notably, those positives seem to apply to almost all the wide receivers on the 90-man roster. Maybe Will McClay and his scouting staff just did a better job in putting talent in the wide receiver room.
Or (and this gets my vote) Lal is just doing a great job getting the most out of his players. Whatever the case, he is an assistant coach that has come in and made an immediate, noticeable impact. And that makes him someone to watch closely. With the changed approach to the offense, where ALL the receivers need to be a threat, he may turn out to be the most important hire this year.
And before you Kris Richard fans get all up in arms, think of this as a gauntlet thrown down. Bet the DBs get their butts worked off this week. A little rivalry in the staff can be a good thing.