In Fast Start To Season, Cowboys’ Passing Attack Truly An Inside Affair
Speaking from a ritzy Los Angeles studio on Monday morning, Jimmy Johnson, that wily Fox personality who just loves to poke fun at his former employer’s team, offered his perspective on the Dallas Cowboys’ 3-1 start to the 2016 season. As a former Super Bowl-winning head coach in Dallas, Jimmy’s take on the matter, you see, is considered to be more valuable than most. More so than mine. More so than yours. Certainly worth more than Jerry’s, though I guess that goes without saying.
Seated across from Colin Cowherd, Jimmy told his host and a captive audience that he wasn’t buying any Cowboys playoff tickets just yet. Oh, he said a lot more that was sure to be digested around the old water cooler for the remainder of the week.
So feel free to argue Johnson’s assertion that the Cowboys need Tony Romo in the lineup to have a chance to beat top-level NFL competition later in the season. Dissect at your good pleasure his notion that the Dallas defense will buckle against the Packers and Steelers without Romo’s surgically-repaired back to lean on.
But it would be nothing short of intellectual dishonesty to try to find fault with Johnson’s description of the Cowboy offense under rookie Dak Prescott. “Efficient” was the adjective used, as cold and as cryptic a verbal illustration of the Cowboys’ offensive machine through four games as you will find. Once again, Jimmy cut through all the red tape and drama surrounding Jerry’s surprisingly opportunistic Cowboy team to illuminate the primary cause for their current three-game winning streak.
As Jimmy said, the Cowboys have been efficient thus far in 2016. Almost amazingly so.
But while Dak and fellow rookie Ezekiel Elliott have garnered the lion’s share of the headlines to date, with an occasional bone being thrown to the offensive line, two key cogs in the Dallas passing game have been rendered as good as forgotten. Fans and writers have displayed admirable memories for the Dak pass attempt and the Zeke scamper, but hardly a word has been afforded the recent pass-catching exploits of Jason Witten and Cole Beasley.
At 5-foot-8 inches tall, Beasley is the shortest guy on the field on Sunday afternoons. From his slot-receiver position, he also is the quickest. Witten, the Cowboys’ 34-year old lumbering tight end, very well may be the slowest player on the field. They each have proven to be un-coverable through this season’s first month of play, while providing the Dallas offense with an unforeseen identity.
The Cowboys of 2016 are giving credence to the old-fashioned theory which holds that a team dominating between the numbers need not venture outside that. The Cowboys are chewing up defenses in the middle of the field, making yards, first-downs, and points with their inside group of players. Dak. Zeke. The big guys up front. And oh yes, Cole and Jason too. Those last two most certainly.
Dallas leads the league in rushing attempts per game, with 35. But their offense is about more than just pounding the rock between the tackles. They also wear the paint off the hashes with their passing game. Enter Mr. Beasley and Mr. Witten.
Cole Beasley’s 23 pass receptions leads the Cowboys through four games. Witten’s 21 catches ranks a close second. And Beasley’s 76 yards-after-the-catch is bettered only by Witten’s 77.
This development should not be considered a haphazard accident. These two are the most productive targets because they have been the most reliable.
Prescott has yet to find consistency from any of his wideouts, especially the over-paid one of the bunch. Yes, that’s you, Mr. Bryant. Dez Bryant is in the lineup one day, inactive the next. He shows up at one meeting, but skips the next two. He’s catching the game-clinching touchdown pass against the Bears one week, works himself onto America’s Most Hated list the next.
Terrance Williams has proven to be just as undependable in the early going. So too has Brice Butler.
The result has been Prescott seeking openings in defenses from the inside-out. This has been the Cowboys’ bread and butter, a philosophy which has allowed them to control the ball for over 35 minutes per game.
It’s also been their most effective formula for making big plays in the passing game. Of the Cowboys’ nine pass plays of more than 20-yards this season, six of them have come from the trio of Beasley, Witten, and reserve tight end Geoff Swaim.
Prescott, at times, has sought a big play from one of his wide receivers, but one by one they were all rendered as wasted opportunities. Bryant allowed what would have been a 24-yard touchdown reception against the Giants to be jarred loose upon landing. Two weeks later, Williams negated the effectiveness of his 47-yard catch-and-run versus Chicago by fumbling the ball back to the defense.
It’s because of Beasley and Witten that Prescott has the third-highest completion-percentage (67.9) in the league, and it’s because of certain “outsiders,” if you will, that he isn’t any higher on that list. Their reliability in finding holes in the middle of defenses is why the Cowboys are still one of only four teams (New England, Minnesota, and Philadelphia) that have yet to throw an interception during this season.
My, how things have changed. A year ago, Beasley was too often invisible in the Dallas offense, going three games without catching a single pass, while Witten was enduring his worst season in twelve years. Now, these two are the stable aerial fixtures on one of the NFL’s truly dominant units. A pair of many efficient components that have composed a 3-1 beginning that has everyone – even Jimmy – talkin’ ‘bout them Cowboys.