'The deep ball is back in Dallas': Why an emerging receiver could lift the Cowboys offense from mediocrity

Terez PaylorSenior NFL writer

FRISCO, Texas — Back in the day, when the early ‘90s Dallas Cowboys were ripping up defenses and winning championship rings, their array of skill position talent had them fielding one of the league’s most dangerous offenses.

Focus in on running back Emmitt Smith, a Hall of Famer, and he still might gash you behind one of the league’s most iconic offensive lines. Find a way to slow him down, and quarterback Troy Aikman, another Hall of Famer, would chuck it to the legendary Michael Irvin.

But every once in a while, teams had the defensive personnel to slow down both Smith and Irvin. When that happened, the Cowboys could rely on tight end Jay Novacek, who didn’t make the Hall of Fame but was a five-time Pro Bowler, and No. 2 receiver Alvin Harper, who didn’t make a Pro Bowl but emerged as a John Taylor-ish deep-ball threat, regardless.

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So when Irvin — who is now an analyst for NFL Network — judges the present-day Cowboys, it’s always through that lens. Yes, they have the Emmitt-like star running back in Ezekiel Elliott. Yes, they have the Aikman-like star quarterback in Dak Prescott (don’t debate Irvin on this). And yes, they have the Irvin-like star receiver in Amari Cooper.

But for the Cowboys to reach their truest potential, they need the second-tier guys to step up. And in that regard, Irvin sees a Harper-like complement to Cooper on the horizon for 2019.

“Let me tell you something — out of all the people that we’ll talk about this preseason, I love what I see out of Michael Gallup,” Irvin told Yahoo Sports outside the Cowboys’ practice facility earlier this month. “I think he’ll be the guy who surprises everybody this year.”

Expect to see more of these catches by Dallas Cowboys WR Michael Gallup once the season starts. (Getty Images)
Expect to see more of these catches by Dallas Cowboys WR Michael Gallup once the season starts. (Getty Images)

The deep ball is now a priority in Big D

Gallup, a third-round pick a year ago who posted modest stats as a rookie, doesn’t disagree with Irvin’s assessment.

That much became clear during an interview with Yahoo Sports during mandatory minicamp.

“I guess the biggest thing everybody wants to know is that me and Dak have been working on the deep ball,” Gallup told Yahoo Sports. “That’s been going good, and the new quarterback coach [Jon Kitna] wants him to throw that.”

He sees more on the horizon for an offense that came within two wins of the Super Bowl but far too often showed an overall lack of dynamism and downfield aggression, both of which got Prescott roundly criticized and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan canned after the season.

“So it’s like, if we don’t connect on a couple more of them this year … I don’t know what happened. We’ve been getting the reps in practice,” he said.

The Cowboys’ offseason practices seemed to bear that out, with Prescott regularly attempting to push the ball downfield (and Gallup serving as a primary target).

When asked if there seems to be more of an emphasis on that under new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, Gallup pursed his lips, Robert DeNiro-style, and nodded his head.

“Oh yeah, I would definitely say so,” Gallup told Yahoo Sports. “If it’s single-high [coverage], you better look for the fade ball and I ain’t got a problem with it. If they’re throwing it to me and they think I can run it better than somebody else, hell yeah [I’m with it].”

Which should be music to the ears of fans who watched Prescott finished 16th in deep passing attempts, according to Pro Football Focus, while the offense tallied only 39 passing plays of 20 yards or more, the fourth-lowest mark in the league.

“The deep ball’s back,” Irvin insisted, “because Gallup is here.”

To be fair, he was there last season, too. But Gallup, like most rookies, needed some time to get acclimated last season. There’s at least two good reasons for that, both of which have long been obstacles to rookie NFL receivers making an instant impact at this level.

‘I’ve got to listen to the play call now’

Gallup caught only seven of the first 17 passes thrown his way in 2018, totaling 109 yards over the Cowboys’ first six games. He did not score until Week 7 against Washington, his second straight start.

But when the Cowboys traded for star receiver Amari Cooper, who had already established himself as a bonafide outside threat in Oakland prior to coach Jon Gruden’s arrival, Gallup — along with the Cowboys’ offense — came to life.

With defenses forced to pay heed to Cooper’s blend of athleticism and superior route-running, Gallup found more room to operate, and rallied to catch 33 passes for 507 yards and two touchdowns by the end of the regular season. In the Cowboys’ divisional-round loss to the Rams, he finished with career-highs in both catches (six) and yards (119).

As the season progressed, he began to show the same flashes of big-play ability he displayed in college, where his size, burst and strength at the catch point made him elite at the “X” receiver position:

In other offenses — like Dallas’ — the spotlight position is the “Z,” which is where Amari Cooper plays. But under Colorado State coach Mike Bobo, the “X” — lined up in the boundary, aligned on the line of scrimmage — is the spotlight. It’s where Bobo, who was once the offensive coordinator at the University of Georgia, even put future Cincinnati Bengals star A.J. Green; a big reason Gallup says he committed to Colorado State before 2016 season.

For two years under Bobo, Gallup regularly feasted on a steady diet of slant routes, bench routes, 10-yard outs, post routes, and go balls, all of which can be run particularly well from that spot. In Dallas, Gallup plays the “X,” but is being asked to learn other positions, too.

“Hey, I want to play in the boundary, but I’ve got to know what I’m doing first,” Gallup said. “That’s what I was trying to get last year. I’ve got to figure out what I’m doing.”

And that, he says, starts with knowing his assignment, which has proven to be easier said than done.

“I’ve got to listen to the play call now,” Gallup told Yahoo Sports. “See, back at Colorado State, I knew I was in the boundary. And I’d look at [the receiver] coach, he gives me a signal, slant — boom, that’s easy.

“Here, you’ve got to listen to the whole play call [to figure out where to lineup]. And sometimes — a lot of the times now — I don’t even line up in the boundary. I line up in the middle of the field, to the strong side of the field, I line up tight, I mean … I’m all over the place in this offense. Which is good.”

But at the same time, he’s most natural playing the boundary. Which he says still feels like home, but especially rung true last year.

“Last year, a lot of times the reason I was in the wrong [place] or whatever is because I didn’t know the playbook like I was supposed to know it,” Gallup told Yahoo Sports. “The athleticism is always gonna be there, catching the ball’s always gonna be there. Obviously, these dudes are a lot better than playing in college, but shoot, I wouldn’t be where I’m at today [if] I can’t play ball, neither.”

‘For me, it’s that mental thing’

But Gallup says there’s still one more area he says he must master to truly reach his potential, and it’s one that has felled many an NFL rookie.

“I wouldn’t say we have a lot of [sight adjustments] here,” Gallup told Yahoo Sports. “But we’ve got way more [than college].”

Sight adjustments require receivers to alter their routes mid-play depending on the defensive coverage. They are a standard in the NFL, and many young receivers struggle in this area when they immediately enter the NFL because many college programs don’t require their receivers to think on the fly like that.

Some receivers never fully pick it up, and thus, many of them fail to reach their full potential, as their quarterbacks don’t trust them enough to throw the ball their way, since the penalty for a missed sight adjustment is often an incompletion or interception.

“For me it’s that mental thing — seeing the coverages, reading defenses,” Gallup told Yahoo Sports. “I want to understand the concepts of the defense, and it’s never been easy for me, I guess. I see it [the defense], but I see somebody roll and go like this, and I think it’s something else and it ain’t.”

The good news for Cowboys fans is that Gallup worked hard in this area with receivers coach Sanjay Lal throughout OTAs, which ended a few weeks ago.

“I’ve been trying to go over things with Sanjay because out there on the field, it turns into playing ball — if you ain’t got it now, shh, you ain’t gon’ get it out there,” Gallup told Yahoo Sports. “So definitely going over it with Sanjay, I think I made some improvements to see some things I wouldn’t have seen last year.”

Add Gallup’s personal improvement to the buy-in all the Cowboys seem to be making in Moore’s offense, and Gallup can’t help but see an uptick in the offense’s overall productivity.

“There will be a little bit more flavor to it,” Gallup told Yahoo Sports. “Dak feels comfortable back there, he enjoys what Kellen’s doing and likes it. Kellen’s young — he thinks like us, you know what I’m saying?

“Man, I think we got a squad this year — that’s what I think. I think we can get whatever we want [on offense] ... we’ve just gotta put the pieces together. That’s all that is.”

And in Irvin’s mind, if Gallup’s prophecy does come to pass, the second-year pro will be a central reason why.

“Everybody will be focused on Amari, they’ll focus on Randall Cobb,” Irvin told Yahoo Sports. “But watch this young kid take off and I mean, hit the stratosphere.”

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