We are starting this conversation with that because what we are about to discuss does not take away from it. In a world where multiple things can be true, one can be that the franchise quarterback was small when the moment commanded being large, but that there are other non-negotiable things about the Dallas Cowboys as a whole that are also true.
Now that we have established the way reality works, we can talk about the bets that the Cowboys took before the season began. To be clear, there are a number of rolls of the dice that grew the chip stack at The Star in Frisco: Tyler Smith, Brett Maher, even Anthony Brown to a degree before he was injured.
Not that anyone can be expected to pitch a perfect game on these sort of things, but one of the biggest risks that the Cowboys took entering 2022 was based on their skill position players. Part of this idea was dependent on Dak Prescott elevating what was around him, and while it is fair to ask that of the epicenter of your team, it is also making things a little more difficult than they have to be.
Results proved that to be the case.
The Dallas Cowboys got very little from non-CeeDee Lamb pass catchers in 2022
An old adage is that the quarterback cannot throw and catch the ball, so while we can and should hold Dak Prescott accountable for his actions, we also need to take a look at what he is working with and examine whether or not they held up their end of the bargain.
On the surface it appears that the Cowboys did indeed cash in on one of their bigger bets as they believed CeeDee Lamb would evolve into a bona fide alpha wide receiver. He did.
But we live in an NFL world where one alpha is not enough. Iron Man couldn’t have defeated Thanos alone, he needed the likes of Captain America, The Hulk, Thor, Spider-Man, one of the most famous scenes from Avengers: Endgame is literally the entire MCU army showing up for the battle in question.
If we look at the EPA generated by Dallas Cowboys pass-catchers you can see Iron Man at the very top flying around in his fancy suit. Outside of that, it appears like a bunch of normal citizens and not anyone with a special shield, hammer, or radiation-generated superpowers.
The Cowboys' top pass-catchers in total target EPA in after CeeDee Lamb were TY Hilton and Jake Ferguson. pic.twitter.com/zKW6sFWBZp— Austin Gayle (@austingayle_) January 24, 2023
Amazingly the pass-catcher who generated the second-most EPA on plays where they were targeted was T.Y. Hilton who didn’t even join the team until it was nearing its conclusion. Our third-place finisher is rookie tight end Jake Ferguson. Behind Fergie lies Tony Pollard, who we have all screamed to be used more while Malik Davis is holding strong in fifth with his limited opportunities (none of which came with the season on the line in San Francisco).
Nobody else is on the positive side of the spectrum, and perhaps even more frustratingly, some big investments are hanging out way near the bottom.
The actual bottom features tight end Dalton Schultz who played the season on the franchise tag and showed poor effort over the final plays of the season by not knowing he had to get out of bounds and not taking getting two feet down in bounds serious enough. The Dennis Houston that commanded all sorts of hype around training camp is just above him, but third-from-the-bottom is franchise running back Ezekiel Elliott. That feels about right.
Obviously Schultz was on the tag and much has been made about Elliott’s contract, but Michael Gallup is also near the bottom here and he was given a brand new deal by the team over the offseason. Clearly that did not work out the way that the team envisioned, at least in year one.
This is truly where the Cowboys “lost” a bet, so to speak. Lamb blew up and good for that, but the team missed the traded-away Amari Cooper in the sense that they missed a solid second option. Gallup did not become that, third-round pick Jalen Tolbert obviously did not, and the first free agent signing of the offseason in James Washington did not either.
Dak Prescott has flaws. He needs to improve. All of that is true. But if you want your quarterback to succeed then put him in position to do so. This isn’t to say that Dak is helpless and that the Cowboys have not provided him with talented players to work with, but this data is an indictment on their approach to the tools at his disposal.
The Cowboys get criticized for “liking their own guys” but the way that the pass-catching situation unfolded is a stark example of how that can burn you in a given year. Prescott has shown an ability to be a successful quarterback when he has the proper help around him, hopefully the lesson learned from 2022 is that the proper help should be found at all costs.