A couple of years ago, the Cowboys had an embarrassment of riches at the receiver position. Amari Cooper was one of the top route runners in football, CeeDee Lamb was thriving in his second year in the league, and Michael Gallup was playing well enough to be some teams’ top wideout. Even Cedrick Wilson showed enough in spot duty to earn a three-year deal with the Dolphins in free agency.
Last year, things were quite different. Dallas traded Cooper, Gallup struggled with consistency after returning way ahead of schedule from a torn ACL, and Wilson was gone. The idea was to make Lamb the focal point of the offense, which became a necessity with the injury to James Washington, the struggles of rookie Jalen Tolbert, and inconsistent play from Noah Brown.
In 2022, there was a clear talent issue at the receiver position. The Cowboys worked to fix that for 2023, trading for veteran Brandin Cooks to fill in as the WR2 while remaining confident in progression from both Gallup and Tolbert. There were also plans to get KaVontae Turpin more involved on offense.
For the most part, those things have panned out. Cooks has produced two touchdowns, Tolbert just caught his first career touchdown, and Turpin has seven catches for 69 yards and two touchdowns. Second-year tight end Jake Ferguson has also burst onto the scene, becoming a reliable safety blanket option.
Yet, there’s still a general sense that this receiving corps isn’t where it needs to be. That’s why the team just added Martavis Bryant to their practice squad, after all. Gallup has had some flashes this year, but still plenty of struggles. Cooks isn’t getting thrown to often enough. And Lamb is still commanding the vast majority of work in the pass game despite the team’s efforts to beef up his supporting cast. So what gives?
Simply put, it’s supposed to be this way. Lamb, who is being targeted on 26.8% of all passes, is the number one receiver in this offense. Nobody really questions that, especially with the work he’s putting up: 79.2% catch rate (second in the NFL) for 827 yards and three touchdowns.
The issue some have is that the Cowboys aren’t really using their other weapons. However, unlike 2022, this isn’t an issue with the talent at the position. Cooks is a proven commodity, and the trio of Gallup, Tolbert, and Turpin have shown enough to justify their spots on this roster. Ferguson is emerging more and more each week as well.
What this ultimately comes down to is the scheme. Mike McCarthy introduced West Coast principles to this offense over the offseason, and chief among them has been a focus on getting the ball out quick. That’s held true, with Dak Prescott averaging a lightning quick 2.66 seconds per throw.
What that also means is that the progressions for a pass play get shorter. One valid criticism of Kellen Moore’s offense was how long some plays took to develop, with Prescott frequently having to get to his third or fourth read to find someone that was open. Case in point: Moore’s new quarterback, Justin Herbert, is averaging a rather high 2.76 seconds per throw.
With these West Coast principles that McCarthy has implemented, Prescott really only has one or two reads on a given play. There might actually be more than that per play, but the timing component of this pass game means he’s generally only looking at those first two reads before getting into a scramble drill.
This also means that the first or second read on a play is going to get the ball nine out of 10 times. Based on the target numbers, it would seem that Lamb is very frequently finding himself as the first read, which makes sense. Looking back at McCarthy’s years running the offense for the Packers, there were some years where the ball got spread out more often. But there were also seasons where McCarthy would heighten the focus for a specific receiver if they were really that much better than everyone else (see: Jordy Nelson early in his career).
As for another common criticism relating to deep shots, specifically the use of Cooks, this is also a function of the progression pattern. Generally speaking, West Coast quarterbacks will read the safeties immediately after the snap. If they have a deep route headed where the safeties aren’t, then that effectively becomes the first read. But if the safeties are in an alignment towards the deep route, the quarterback must come off of it and look towards their real first read.
With the rising trend of NFL defenses playing a Vic Fangio type of defense, which plays with two deep safeties aimed at taking away big plays, that’s led to a whole lot of deep routes essentially being taken away. The Cowboys have actually been a little more intentional in their deep shots the last two weeks, with Prescott throwing 20 or more yards downfield on 16% of his attempts after doing so on just 10.2% over the first six weeks. Still, though, the Cowboys don’t want to force a deep shot if it’s not there.
What this really comes down to is the Cowboys feeding Lamb like a true number one, which he’s proven to be. For context, Lamb’s 26.8% target share only ranks 13th among receivers, so in that context he’s not even being fed that much. But when Lamb is the first read on most plays, as he should be, that’s going to lead to a whole lot of targets for him and only so much for the rest of the group.
More than that, though, this approach has been working for the Cowboys. The passing game is seventh in yards per attempt, 11th in touchdown pass rate, and sixth in both EPA/dropback and success rate. Prescott also has a 128.4 passer rating when throwing to Lamb, fourth best for any receiver. So if it ain’t broke, why fix it?