The Dallas Cowboys need to improve their passing game. After finishing in the top eight in passing yards in three-straight seasons from 2019 to 2021, the offense finished 14th last year. Granted, five of those games were played without Dak Prescott, but even when Dak was on the field, the passing game saw a decline. Prescott’s passing yards per game are plummeting.
- 2019: 306 yards per game
- 2020: 371 yards per game (played in just five games)
- 2021: 278 yards per game
- 2022: 238 yards per game
Last season was the second-lowest of his career and the worst since 2017. The Cowboys were so disappointed in their passing attack back in 2017 that they changed their approach the following offseason. They released Dez Bryant and replaced him with lower-cost veteran free agent signings like Allen Hurns, Tavon Austin, and Deonte Thompson, and third-round rookie Michael Gallup. The team moved away from athleticism that could no longer win and placed an emphasis on more fundamentally sound receivers to make things easier on Prescott. Having a receiver be where he was supposed to be was paramount in helping their young quarterback. Needless to say, this experiment didn’t work and it forced the Cowboys' hand to trade a future first-round pick for one of the game’s more prolific route-runners in Amari Cooper.
The addition of Cooper revamped the Cowboys' passing game. Prescott went from a game manager to a quarterback who could cut loose and hit deep to intermediate throws with great accuracy. His performance cemented the organization’s confidence that he was their quarterback of the future so they signed him to a four-year, $160 million extension.
During Prescott’s first season under his new deal, the Cowboys' offense finished second in the league in passing yards in 2021. The team’s unwavering faith in Dak gave the front office a false sense of security that they could part ways with Amari Cooper and his $20 million annual salary and have the offense not skip a beat. After all, they still had third-year rising star receiver CeeDee Lamb on the roster and just gave Michael Gallup a five-year extension.
Despite knowing that Gallup’s return from a knee injury would come with limitations, the team felt they could surround their top receivers with complementary players to round out the position group. This included returning players like Noah Brown, free agent signings like James Washington and then T.Y. Hilton, and third-round rookie Jalen Tolbert.
But things did not go well.
Gallup’s return was dismal and the patchwork of receiving options never posed any type of real threat. Things were challenging for Prescott. The Cowboys passing attack was an up-and-down show of success and failures that included some exhilarating highlights, but also many curl routes to stationary targets or tight-window throws that were, at times, jumped or deflected into the arms of the defense. There were times when Prescott was fantastic, but there were also times when he was off target, the receivers weren’t separating, and the route concepts were dummied down to the point where defenses were sitting on top of them and figuring out where Prescott was going to go with the ball.
The Cowboys once again find themselves at a crossroads. They need to find ways to improve their passing game. With Kellen Moore taking the offensive coordinator job with the Los Angeles Chargers, the play-calling duties will fall on head coach Mike McCarthy. The team will look for new solutions to help their quarterback be successful. But to do that, they need to find ways to maximize his strengths and cover up his weaknesses.
For Prescott, this includes giving him adequate pass protection. The Cowboys offensive line had one of the worst pass-rush win rates last season. When Dak feels pressure, he bolts. It messes with his physique and he doesn’t always hang tough and work through his progressions. Prescott also loves wide-open targets versus throwing his receivers open. Anticipation is not a strong suit for him and that is why route-running specialists like Cooper and stationary targets have been part of the strategy over the years.
Dak is a good quarterback. He has the arm strength to rip it and make big throws and he’ll never stop trying to make those plays, but the Cowboys also need to help him a little more. This offseason, an effort should be made to upgrade the receiving room to where they can add a nice separator to the mix. This doesn’t have to come in the form of some huge free-agent signing or blockbuster trade. Instead, the team can still find solutions in the passing game without compromising any premium draft capital or hefty cap resources.
Stay tuned as we will explore some of the free agent wide receiving options with an emphasis on those who create separation.