In Stephen Jones’ own words, NFL free agency is “just not a great way to build a football team.” Tell that to the Super Bowl champion Rams, or whatever team may be lucky enough to sign Amari Cooper later this month.
The Cowboys have found ways to bargain shop in free agency in recent years, mainly for a laundry list of players that hardly contributed, and a few fringe to just-above-average starters.
You’re going to pay good players like they’re great, average players like they’re good, below average players like they’re average. It’s just not a great way to build a football team - Stephen Jones
The idea of the Cowboys re-signing Michael Gallup seemed unlikely at the start of free agency. Gallup has been viewed as the third option to CeeDee Lamb and Amari Cooper, and another team offering him top receiver money would surely drive his price point past where the Jones’ are comfortable in their current cap situation.
Instead, the Cowboys are hoping Gallup’s late-season ACL tear keeps his price in a more comfortable range, and plan on sticking with yet another homegrown talent. The catch, you ask as a cautiously optimistic Cowboys fan that wants more of Gallup, Lamb, and Cooper together?
The names may change each offseason, but the Cowboys tried and true process of over-hyping their talent level, creating their own cap issues by extending these players after they’ve created leverage against the front office, and acting surprised by an end result of simply not being good enough is maddening.
Even the biggest fans of Michael Gallup’s game can understandably find it difficult to get hyped about the 2018 second-round pick taking on a bigger role solely because of the Cowboys losing Cooper. Schematically, this move would also be on par with the Cowboys recent offseason moves.
For a team that believes the grass is always greener at The Star, the Cowboys forcing Gallup and Lamb into their top receiver pairing is also a commitment to Kellen Moore’s scheme that the third-year offensive coordinator has not earned.
The Cowboys had 56 explosive pass plays to receivers in 2021. Only Tom Brady’s Buccaneers, and the two Super Bowl participants in Joe Burrow’s Bengals and Matt Stafford’s Rams created more. The bad news (again, sorry)? Cooper accounted for 14% of these explosive pass plays, a share that puts him in the same elite company as Adam Thielen, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, and Emmanuel Sanders.
Moore was never able to consistently scheme touches for Cooper, who makes a difference with the ball in his hands. This inconsistency is a huge reason why the Cowboys struggled to overcome their league-high in penalties this season. Cooper has ten games with 100 or more receiving yards in three years with the Cowboys, two without Dak Prescott in 2019, and 15 games with less than 50 yards.
Cooper is a target that needs to be hit in stride, as his best trait is stressing a defense with change of direction ability and long speed. Instead of finding a way to do this more, the Cowboys are looking into moving on from Cooper and staying committed to the play-caller responsible, as well as a head coach that didn’t jump in to assure his top receiver was a bigger part of the game plan. Dallas will hype up Gallup, a player deserving of plenty of praise, because his style of play as a big bodied receiver that can win on stop routes with size and strong hands fits the scheme.
The route concepts that Moore underutilizes, particularly in the red zone, are now the strengths of his potential top receivers in Lamb and Gallup. Instead of prioritizing doing everything they can to help Moore this offseason, the Cowboys are backing him and McCarthy into a corner with ready-made excuses for why this offense could struggle to stay sharp in another 17 game stretch.
If your scheme allows for Amari Cooper to disappear with games on the line, and didn’t do enough for CeeDee Lamb to justify the bigger role he’ll step into without Cooper, it’s time for a look in the mirror. Even the way the Cowboys are going about preparing for life without Cooper is suspect.
Yes, a passing attack of Lamb, Gallup, and potentially Dalton Schultz/Cedrick Wilson/Malik Turner is still good enough for the Cowboys to expect Dak Prescott maintains a high level of offense. Using the strength of your team and any roster surplus to upgrade elsewhere is smart team building, and something the Cowboys aren’t capable of. Instead of trading Cooper, something Dallas will reportedly look to do even though the world knows their intentions to release him, the Cowboys will simply see another marquee player walk out the door.
From my look at how the Cowboys could actually set themselves up for a productive offseason, I had this to say about a potential Amari Cooper release:
Where the sky starts to fall on this sunshine and rainbows outlook is when players like Cooper or Lawrence are floated as tradeoffs for Dallas to reup their expiring deals.
I want to be excited for Michael Gallup. For CeeDee Lamb. For a desperate, back against the wall Mike McCarthy making sure this offense doesn’t go stale. However, the Cowboys have perfected the art of insanity - doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results - and it’s past time to stop letting it spread into the fanbase as well.
Just as the Cowboys 2021 passing game was their best chance to overcome all other faults, keeping this strength together would help stem any regression on defense, and whatever results the Cowboys get out of a ground game still buoyed by Ezekiel Elliott. Instead, with an Amari Cooper release looming, the Cowboys continue to create more questions than answers this offseason.
Questions that both McCarthy and Moore will have to answer, be it in the coming weeks, throughout the 2022 season, or in their exit interviews when they plead the Jones that the latest loss season was a result of the talent they inexplicably let walk.