The Cowboys clearly were not happy with the way their offense performed this past season, hence the decision to part ways with offensive coordinator Kellen Moore and opt for head coach Mike McCarthy to call plays moving forward. There are a lot of reasons to think McCarthy will do a good job running the offense, but this change alone is not enough.
Simply put, the Cowboys have a speed problem. More specifically, they lack speed in their receiving corps. This was especially evident in the playoff loss to the 49ers, but it popped its head up several times throughout the season. Dallas lacked a receiver who could truly take the top off of a defense and stretch them vertically, allowing for more opportunities underneath.
In previous years, Michael Gallup had functioned well in this role, with his excellent ball tracking and contested catch skills making up for his lack of elite speed. But with Gallup recovering from a torn ACL - as well as needing ankle and knee surgery on his other leg - and clearly not looking like himself, the Cowboys brought in a similar deep threat receiver in James Washington. That signing never panned out, and the Cowboys’ lack of speed became ever more apparent as a fatal flaw in the way this offensive roster was constructed.
This was a big reason why the T.Y. Hilton signing was exciting, because he was immediately the fastest receiver on the team. Hilton ran the 40-yard dash in 4.34 seconds, which was the fifth fastest time in his class. By comparison, the Cowboys receiver with the fastest 40 time was rookie Jalen Tolbert, whose 4.49 time was in the 77th percentile of his class. Unless, of course, you count KaVontae Turpin as a receiver - his 4.31 40-yard dash time is truly impressive - but calling Turpin a receiver at this point is like calling Jerry Jones the general manager of the team: sure, that’s what it says on official documents, but we all know Stephen Jones and Will McClay run the team.
Of course, Hilton’s blazing 40 time was a decade ago now. He’s no longer the speed demon that he once was, but Hilton was still fast enough to threaten teams in certain situations. Even CeeDee Lamb, who emerged as the team’s top dog on offense and had a career year, only recorded a 4.5 40-yard dash, and Michael Gallup was just behind him at 4.51 seconds. This receiving corps was just not that fast.
The NFL uses their GPS player tracking data to provide lists of the Top 20 fastest ball carriers throughout the season. Among the 20 fastest ball carriers over the course of the entire season, the Cowboys didn’t have a single player on the list. Only three players - Lamb, Pollard, and Turpin - ever even made the Top 20 list in a given week, something each of them did multiple times.
Lamb and Pollard were big parts of the offense, and easily identifiable as their only explosive players. But there were times where it wasn’t enough, as defenses would double team Lamb while Pollard was caught in a snap share with Ezekiel Elliott. Meanwhile, Turpin sees the field almost exclusively as a return specialist, offering little help to the offense. In fact, Turpin ultimately saw one fewer target and catch than Tolbert, who was basically redshirting the entire year.
The simple truth is that the Cowboys just don’t value speed as much as other teams do. Since 2010, the team has only drafted three wide receivers who ran a 40-yard dash in under 4.5 seconds: Tolbert (4.49), Simi Fehoko (4.43), and Danny Coale (4.42), The three of them have combined for five career catches with the Cowboys. Dallas also traded for Amari Cooper (4.42) and signed undrafted free agent Cole Beasley (4.49).
It’s clear that speed isn’t a prerequisite for playing receiver in Dallas. None of these players have clocked in under 4.42 seconds - which, for context, would’ve ranked in the 89th percentile among receivers in last year’s draft class - in the 40-yard dash, and most of the receivers the Cowboys draft aren’t even coming in under 4.5 seconds. It’s no wonder they have a lack of speed at the position.
Speed has become a necessity in the modern day NFL, and having receivers that can burn just about any defensive back can be the factor that separates good offenses from great offenses. Just look at the Dolphins, who paired the speedy Jaylen Waddle with the even faster Tyreek Hill and watched their offense improve from 24th in DVOA a year ago to seventh.
The Cowboys may be changing the play-caller, but that shouldn’t be the only change they make. McClay needs to reevaluate the way he scouts receivers, and factor speed more into the equation, if the Cowboys truly want their offense to take the next step.