PALM BEACH, Fla. — Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy called it a “priority.”
Owner/general manager Jerry Jones deemed it his “wish.”
Quarterback Dak Prescott, the men emphasized this week, should capitalize on offseason opportunities for growth.
“My wish would be for him to get as much time throwing with our receivers as he can in the offseason,” Jones said at NFL owners meetings this week. “I would like, when we get to the first game, for him to have had more time in the offseason with our receivers.”
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The wish stems from several factors surrounding Dallas’ passing game. On the plus side, Prescott attacks this offseason with contract certainty and health that had eluded him in recent years. He is physically capable of putting in the requisite work to build chemistry and eager to focus on football after grueling months of rehabilitation skewed his 2021 work. But Prescott must also attack this increased physical freedom with a reminder of what he’s lost: the Cowboys traded Amari Cooper to the Cleveland Browns and let Cedrick Wilson join the Miami Dolphins in free agency, a duo that last season combined for 1,467 receiving yards and 14 receiving touchdowns.
The Cowboys were productive in 2021, leading the league in total offense (407 yards per game) and total points (31.2) while ranking second for passing yards per game (282.4 yards) and fourth for passing yards per play (7.42). And yet, Dallas’ 12-5 season sputtered late in the year, particularly against teams with winning records. The Cowboys were the lone home team to lose in the wild-card round of the playoffs, Prescott and his receivers connecting on just 53.5% of passes in the postseason disappointment.
So the Cowboys are shaking up their collection of talent, seeking new formulas to solve the equation, and emphasizing that wins demand more than productivity.
“Offensively, we have to be more efficient,” Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said. “We had a top-ranked offense. Just to be more efficient in the big games and the postseason.”
The route to efficiency
The offseason, McCarthy concedes, has limitations. The collective bargaining agreement places restrictions on how many practices a team can hold, rules for contact also imposed that hamper realistic line-of-scrimmage work. So perimeter work in the passing game is a natural focus for offseason activities that will begin in May. McCarthy has a plan.
“Coming off our correction from last year, get the timing, the spacing and the details of the passing game,” he said Tuesday by video call. “Particularly against max coverage and aggressive coverage, opportunities we didn’t do the best against last year.”
Prescott admitted defensive disguises were confusing him late in the season, including in the Cowboys’ December loss to the Arizona Cardinals. Receiver CeeDee Lamb, who will be Dallas’ top target, dropped eight passes, including four in December. McCarthy said Tuesday that the Cowboys' offseason studies of the run game revealed the magnitude of the disguise challenge.
“We’ve seen more defense in first and second down than I can ever recall in my time in this league,” McCarthy said. “We were doing a study in the run game about formation, and in one of our primary formations, we saw 13 different defenses to one formation. That’s absurd. You usually train four to six defenses a year per formation.
“That’s a trend you’ve got to pay close attention to because then they’re winning the chess match.”
The Cowboys' offense will face their own challenge in intrasquad spring scrimmages as defensive coordinator Dan Quinn shifts reigning defensive rookie of the year Micah Parsons between linebacker and defensive end, while veteran Jayron Kearse carries out assignments in a hybrid role incorporating safety and linebacker concepts. With an offseason less impacted by COVID, McCarthy believes scheme installation and technique application can thrive further.
“You can do competitive (work), break the route concepts down and teach in a very healthy progression on your perimeter schemes,” he said. “I’ve always felt in the past that the offseason program was a real strength of how I operated and that we were able to take leaps and bounds, especially as a perimeter group.”
A moving target
Prescott has returned from a minor procedure on his non-throwing shoulder to resume throwing two times per week, with the expectation he will throw three times a week as team workouts ramp up later this month. Already, McCarthy said, roughly 30 Cowboys players have been gathering four days a week for player-led captains workouts. Prescott also works with a private quarterbacks coach and invites his teammates to the 55-yard football turf he installed in his backyard.
Who exactly will Prescott throw to with Cooper and Wilson packing for AFC teams?
McCarthy and the Joneses emphasized their belief that Lamb is ready to be a No. 1 receiver in his third year after a 1,102-yard, six-touchdown 2021. The Cowboys signed deep threat Michael Gallup to a five-year extension worth $62.5 million and expect him to return from an ACL tear roughly three games into the season. Dallas also placed its franchise tag on tight end Dalton Schultz after he caught 75% of targets last year en route to 808 yards and eight touchdowns. They signed free-agent James Washington after Pittsburgh let him walk with what Washington believes to be “meat left on the bone.” And they anticipate bolstering their receiving corps further through the draft and possibly free agency.
The formula differs. They hope the equation will be superior.
“You say, 'Well, it looks to me like you're going to drop off no matter what with Cooper,’” Jerry Jones said. “Well, wait a minute. We took a ton of money out of this club that we've now got. You've got to weigh that. Amari is a great player — he's a great player, not a good one. He's one of the top players. We need to get that much. We need to have that player if we want to allocate that much money to him.
“And we made a decision that that allocation should be better spent.”
As the $22 million salary cap that had been allocated to Cooper shifts, so too will on-field opportunities.
“Obviously you look at the volume of the production of both Amari and Cedrick — that’s very real,” McCarthy said. “But with that, it’s about the opportunities that will present to the other players, whether it’s Tony Pollard, whether it’s James Washington, whether it’s CeeDee having more position flex so his opportunities will go up. Dalton Schultz. It’s not going to be a one-for-one type of situation. In my experience, it’s never been.
“I don't want to be cocky or arrogant, but I've always had great confidence in being productive on offense regardless of who we have.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Cowboys, Dak Prescott must focus on offseason 'priority' to be better