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YAC, Dak, and the Cowboys passing game

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Yards after the catch data from 2019 offers more signposts for the future.

Washington Redskins v Dallas Cowboys
He’s good with the ball in his hands.
Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

Passing is the way in the NFL. It is the most effective way to move the ball, as well as generally more exciting than running. Throwing and catching the ball are the main drivers for the air game, but a third factor also makes a big difference between success and failure. That is yards after the catch (YAC), the gains made after the pass is completed.

Football Outsiders just took a look at figures for 2019. In trying to gain the most relevant information, they don’t just examine raw YAC, but use their own stat called YAC+. Here is their definition:

YAC+ is similar to plus-minus; it estimates how much YAC a receiver gained compared to what we would have expected from an average receiver catching passes of similar length in similar down-and-distance situations. This is imperfect due to variations in YAC stemming from the routes the receivers run, but it does a fairly good job of telling you if this receiver gets more or less YAC than other receivers with similar usage patterns.

This means that it tries to identify who is good at YAC and who is not based on how much they exceed the average performance across the board. They don’t publish the data for all receivers, but focus on the best and worst in the article, plus examining how all quarterbacks benefited or didn’t during the course of the season. There were several members of the Dallas Cowboys on the list, which of course is pertinent for us.

The highest rated wide receiver for Dallas is no longer with the team. Randall Cobb, now with the Houston Texans, was the seventh-best receiver in the league (out of 81 who had enough catches to qualify for the ranking.) That is not something to concern us, as his presumptive replacement, CeeDee Lamb, has a history of being a real YAC monster in college. And it is very encouraging to see that just down the list, at the ten spot, is Michael Gallup.

Conspicuously missing from both the top and bottom 20 that FO listed in the article is Amari Cooper. That may seem a bit surprising, because he certainly looked like he was good in this area last year. We’ll dig into reasons why that may have happened after we identify the other Cowboys involved.

Tight ends was a good new/bad news situation last year, but makes one offseason decision very easy to understand. FO had 48 qualifiers, so limited their lists to the top and bottom 15. Two Dallas players made the lists. Blake Jarwin was the 13th best, which makes the argument he was underused last year even stronger. He was only targeted 41 times per FO. That was exactly half as many as Jason Witten - and Witten was one of the worst TEs in the league with his patented gain-a-body-length-falling-down technique, coming in just three spots ahead of dead last. Parting ways with the future Hall of Famer to make Jarwin the TE1 is pretty clearly the wisest way forward. The FO article does not include yards per catch in their tables, but Jarwin had a clear advantage there as well, 11.8 to 8.4.

Running backs are also considered, but like Cooper, Ezekiel Elliott is somewhere in the middle of the pack - between 21 and 30, as it turns out. That seems wrong, because he is such a good runner. We’ll also circle back to that as well.

That takes us to Dak Prescott. The final list in the article has how much each NFL passer benefited from YAC+. There were 34 quarterbacks with enough passes to meet the cutoff for this evaluation, and he ranked 14th overall. That is just a bit better than mediocre. It also doesn’t match up with his total yards on the season, where he ranked second overall. That might indicate that he was a better passer than his receivers as a group were runners, since his air yards must have led to the high total. It certainly bolsters the case for his skill throwing the ball deep, since he was not getting outstanding help from YAC.

But that does not mean he didn’t play a role in the numbers for his receivers. YAC is not just about the skills of the receiver. It can be greatly affected by where the ball is placed. However, it is probably more important what route/play is called. If, for instance, the play is designed for the receiver to make a hook just beyond the sticks to give the QB a clear shot that also allows the defender to get back to the play while the WR is basically standing still, YAC is going to be limited. Likewise, Elliott’s YAC numbers are going to be down if he is used more as a safety valve, especially if he is supposed to sit down in an open space rather than stay on the move.

Looking at the contrast between Jarwin and Witten fits in with this. Witten’s routes almost always seemed to be on the sideline headed toward the sticks, and he got a lot of attention there, which meant he was usually met very soon after getting the ball. Jarwin was used going down the seam, which is a recipe for getting YAC in chunks.

That means that YAC numbers and comparisons probably tell us more about the offensive plan of the coaches than anything else. The widely held perception that there was a conservative streak under Jason Garrett is supported by these figures. Receivers that aren’t given opportunity to get loose after the catch, routes that make catches easy but also make it easier to bring the receiver down before they can do much damage, and not capitalizing on the full ability of your quarterback all fit that idea. The good showings of Gallup and Jarwin also mean that there is plenty of ability to build on, with Lamb likely strengthening things. And now that Patrick Mahomes has a ground-breaking new deal with the Kansas City Chiefs, there is added incentive to find ways to maximize what promises to be a very expensive new deal for Prescott, whenever that gets done, by amplifying his own production.

Changing head coaches could be the real path for the Cowboys to move up in these comparisons. Given what Mike McCarthy is saying and what we have seen from Kellen Moore in games where the reins appeared to be loosened, there are tremendous opportunities to get the talent at receivers operating with more space to add YAC. FO illustrated some valid criticisms of what the team did wrong last year and how they wasted some of the talent advantage they have on offense. It also helps map out how to make things better.