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Baby Got YAC: How the Cowboys are reinventing themselves on offense

There seems to be one driving factor in the Cowboys’ changes to their skill players this year

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

The Cowboys offense is going to look very different in 2022 after saying goodbye to three starters in Amari Cooper, La’el Collins, and Connor Williams, as well as losing two other key contributors in Cedrick Wilson and Blake Jarwin.

But the players on the field aren’t the only thing that will look different. We can expect head coach Mike McCarthy and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore to change things up in how they run the offense going forward. The moves they’d made this offseason have already offered a pretty good hint of what things might look like, but one key aspect of that deserves a second look: yards after the catch.

Known more commonly as just YAC, yards after the catch can be a huge factor for an offense if it happens consistently on the field. In today’s modern NFL, where offenses are becoming more pass-happy than ever and defenses are using deep split-safety coverages to counteract it, YAC is becoming even more vital. Having receivers, as well as a scheme to match them, that can pick up an average of five or six extra yards after the catch allows offenses to better take advantage of defenses doing their best to take away deeper passes.

In fact, this kind of defense was part of what began the Cowboys’ offensive slump halfway through last season. It started against the Broncos, whose defense was run by then head coach Vic Fangio, the same coach whose split-safety coverage has taken the league by storm in recent years. As was the case with the Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes, Dallas and Dak Prescott were thrown off by defenses taking away deeper passes and forcing them to play a quicker game.

In the Cowboys’ case, it didn’t help that they were battling injuries in their receiving corps at the time, but another factor was that the offense wasn’t designed to play that style of football. The Cowboys’ top four in YAC last year were CeeDee Lamb, Dalton Schultz, Tony Pollard, and Ezekiel Elliott. That made up nearly 63% of their total YAC, and two of those players were competing with each other for snaps.

For context on the importance of YAC to modern day NFL offenses, seven teams that ranked in the top ten in pass offense DVOA in 2021 recorded at least 2,200 yards after the catch. Of those seven teams, the Cowboys were sixth in YAC, just ahead of a 49ers team that also featured a significantly more efficient running game than Dallas.

Part of this was due to the Cowboys having a shortage of skill players who can reliably generate YAC. Running backs tend to have inflated YAC numbers due to many of their receptions coming on screens and checkdowns, when defenders are farther away than the average pass-catcher. That makes it even more alarming that Pollard and Elliott were among the four best Cowboys in YAC.

Gallup has an excuse, as he missed half the season; he’s also primarily used as a deep threat when healthy, which further mitigates his chances for YAC. But Cooper was sixth on the team in YAC despite being the highest-paid receiver on the team, by far. Even Wilson had more YAC than Cooper despite seeing nearly half the targets. Jarwin missed half the season too, but his 3.5 YAC per reception tied Cooper as the lowest figure on the team among players who saw more than 10 targets. That’s especially bad for Jarwin, whose athleticism was a core reason for the team having so much belief in him at one point.

So, what happened? Cooper, Wilson, and Jarwin are gone now. Lamb is being anointed the new top dog in the receiver room while Schultz received the franchise tag. Then the Cowboys added two pass-catchers in the draft in Jalen Tolbert and Jake Ferguson who thrived in YAC situations in college.

For Tolbert, he recorded 1,059 yards after the catch throughout his time at South Alabama; for comparison’s sake, Cooper had 1,244 YAC in his time in Dallas. Tolbert also posted the eighth-highest YAC per reception out of all of the receivers selected in this draft despite being the 15th receiver selected.

While Ferguson saw less opportunities in the passing game due to the way Wisconsin uses their tight ends, he still showcased some of the better YAC numbers out of the tight ends in this year’s class. Ferguson saw a lot of quick passes that he managed to turn into bigger gains because of his quickness and physicality to keep going through contact.

Remember those seven teams that had at least 2,200 YAC in 2021? Five of them had at least 2,400 YAC, something the Cowboys weren’t particularly close to doing. But in 2022, the hope is that things will be different. Receivers and tight ends that didn’t produce after the catch are gone, and their empty lockers have been occupied by ones who do. More than that, the players who performed best after the catch are being given larger roles and more responsibilities.

The Cowboys understand that defenses will continue to play the deep split-safety coverages until they prove they can beat it. That never happened last year, save for the periodic drubbings of terrible divisional foes, and it was a big reason why the Cowboys were incapable of moving the ball against the 49ers in the Wild Card game.

So as long as defenses are sitting back and taking things away deep, the Cowboys are going to load up on guys who can burn a defense underneath. Lamb is one of the best at that, ranking 11th among receivers in YAC last year, and there will be others alongside him now. This certainly won’t be the end-all, be-all solution to the Cowboys’ problems, but it’s a good start and addresses a weakness that was particularly glaring last season.

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