What went right, what went wrong for the Cowboys in 2022
What a long, strange journey the 2022 season was the Dallas Cowboys. It began with an offseason that inspired little confidence and left many fans believing it was a throwaway season. Things took a turn for the worse in training camp when one of the Cowboys’ biggest free-agent signings (according to Jerry Jones), wide receiver James Washington, went down with a broken foot in the first padded practice. Another crushing blow came when left tackle Tyron Smith fractured his knee in late August.
Then things really got bad. Quarterback Dak Prescott fractured his thumb in a season-opening defeat and most expected the circumstances to send Dallas into a tailspin.
Yet a funny thing happened on the way to a wasted season, the Cowboys actually won some games. With backup quarterback Cooper Rush keeping the team afloat, the Cowboys were able to set the table for a 12-win season and a road playoff victory.
It didn’t end how many had hoped, but the Cowboys had a good season for a team that was left for dead in September. Here’s what went right, and wrong, for Dallas during the 2022 season.
Right: Faith in Cooper Rush
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
The Cowboys gambled Rush could be a solid backup and win a few games if called upon. There weren’t many who believed, especially after a rough preseason performance.
Then the veteran QB made the organization look smart when the regular season rolled around. While playing with starters and avoiding mistakes, Rush did his part in leading the Cowboys to a 4-1 record in Prescott’s absence.
In the four games the Cowboys won, Rush played relatively clean football, throwing for four scores and no interceptions.This included wins against both of the prior Super Bowl combatants, Cincinnati and the Los Angeles Rams.
Rush wasn’t a perfect QB, but he made smart decisions and played better than expected. The clamoring for him to remain the starter were silly, but Rush was a big part of the 2022 story for Dallas.
The Cowboys were proven right in not adding a higher-priced veteran quarterback to play behind Prescott.
Wrong: The wide receiver room
Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Noah Brown (85)
The Cowboys mishandled the wide receiver position from the minute the offseason began. It was no shock the team wanted to move on from WR Amari Cooper, but trading him made little sense. There were financial and personal reasons that Dallas wanted to rid themselves from Cooper, but it turned out to be a big mistake, just like most everyone predicted.
Instead of keeping Cooper, the Cowboys decided to trade him for a small return of a fifth-round pick. Instead they chose to re-sign free agent receiver Michael Gallup. It was curious decision since Cooper was the better player and Gallup was coming off a serious injury that wouldn’t allow him to play a full season.
Dallas’ plan at receiver; re-sign Gallup, draft Jalen Tolbert in the third round, and sign the veteran WR Washington, was ill conceived. These were the options to pair with ascending receiver CeeDee Lamb, and a returning group that included veteran WR Noah Brown and second-year wide out Simi Fehoko.
Of the players available to start the season, Brown was the only wideout aside from Lamb to have registered a catch. He had 39 in five seasons.
It’s safe to say the plan failed.
The Cowboys tried to replace Amari Cooper’s 292 receptions, 3,893 yards, and 27 TD’s in Dallas with Dennis Houston, James Washington, and Jalen Tolbert. Those three receivers had a combined 4 catches, 28 yards, and 0 TDs.
Amari Cooper had 1,160 yards and 9 TD’s this season.
— Ernie (@es3_09) January 29, 2023
While Lamb excelled, and there were solid moments from Brown and Gallup, the rest of the receivers never got it done. Tolbert rarely saw the field as a third-round pick and Prescott had trouble connecting with any other receiver not named Lamb.
Miscommunication issues and receivers with separation anxiety were a factor in Prescott’s high interception total for the season. Things got desperate when the Cowboys tried to add wide receiver Odell Beckham late in the year and eventually settled on veteran receiver T.Y. Hilton to help.
The offseason plan at receiver for the Cowboys never worked out, and they were proven very wrong with their decisions at the position, despite what Jones says.
Right: CeeDee Lamb is a star
(Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)
Despite miscalculating the depth at receiver, the Cowboys were on the money about Lamb being ready to become a star. Lamb had a slow start with Rush throwing him the ball, but the third-year WR blossomed into one of the league’s best by the end of the year.
Lamb set career highs across the board, catching 107 balls for 1,359 yards and nine touchdowns on his way to a Second-Team All-Pro selection.
CeeDee Lamb on 2nd team All-Pro honor: "I couldn't stop smiling when I got the text message. It was crazy. The road to get here was a bit bumpy but I enjoyed every bit of it. As a player that does everything for your confidence but understanding you got more you got to prove."
— Todd Archer (@toddarcher) January 13, 2023
When the Cowboys needed a play down the field, it was Lamb who answered. Lamb either caught a touchdown or had a 100-yard receiving game in 10 of his last 12 games.
Lamb took over as the No. 1 receiver in Dallas and the team was right to believe that it was his time to break out.
Wrong: Offensive philosophy
(AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)
For several seasons, the Cowboys have relied on the running game too heavily and then asked the quarterback to do too much on key downs. It was the same when Tony Romo was quarterbacking the team, and it was once again the story for Dallas’ offense this season.
There are simply too many runs on first down, too many predictable play calls when the team gets behind the sticks and too many outs, curls, or hitches at the sticks on third downs. Calling for a draw on 1st-and-20 instead of being aggressive had worn thin with Cowboys fans, as did the lack of pre-snap motion and the absence of play action in the game plan.
Instead of being aggressive early, the offense was left in the hands of Prescott to bail them out in third-and-long situations. When Prescott delivered, the Cowboys won games. Dallas finished fifth in the league in third-down conversion rate, but they were much better with Prescott on third downs than they were with Rush. When Prescott came up short, the Cowboys lost games.
Relying on the quarterback is one thing but asking him to bail the team out more times than necessary is tough to sustain. The numbers show the Cowboys with Prescott were one of the best offensive teams in the NFL, yet it was an offense that often came up short in big games.
If the Cowboys had been more aggressive on early downs, or been less predictable with their routes, perhaps they win a few more games.
Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore and Prescott were able to do some really good things; the Cowboys had some outstanding games in 2022. However, the unit wasn’t diverse enough to get the team where they needed to go. More aggression and some changes to the offense might have allowed the Cowboys to beat a good defense in the playoffs.
Right: Offensive line changes
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Another of the biggest offseason question marks was the release of right tackle La’el Collins. The team saved money on the cap by releasing him and put their faith in third-year, undrafted free agent tackle Terence Steele.
The move paid off. Steele was a true road grader in the running game, and made strides as a pass blocker. The Cowboys didn’t miss Collins as Steele rewarded the team’s faith he would continue to grow.
Dallas also made the right call to draft Tyler Smith with their first-round pick.
The versatile offensive lineman was set to play left guard until Tyron Smith’s injury forced him to move outside to left tackle. The Cowboys viewed Tyler Smith as their long-term option at LT, but the move was made before the team anticipated.
The rookie was another pleasant surprise. There were bumps in the road with Smith’s penalties, six holds and 11 in total, but he got valuable experience and the team managed to be successful playing behind a young offensive lineman with a lot on his plate.
It was also a smart move to bring in tackle Jason Peters. The Cowboys were hounded to make a move and add a veteran throughout training camp but waited until the last minute to bring in Peters. The move turned out to be a valuable one, Peters was a mentor to the young linemen, and he was asked to play multiple positions on both sides of the offensive line.
The move was absolutely necessary, and the Cowboys almost waited too long to find depth. Peters was a solid addition to the offensive line and helped the unit throughout the season.
It was one of the more worrisome places for the Cowboys heading into the season, but the offensive line moves worked out until injuries late in the year.