FRISCO, Texas – The Dallas Cowboys finished the 2021 regular season with a 12-5 record.
They boasted the No. 1 offense in the NFL.
They were tied for second in passing offense with the Los Angeles Chargers. Only Tampa Bay and Tom Brady threw for more yards.
They were No. 1 in points scored, more than Tampa Bay, Buffalo and Kansas City, though nine returns – a combination of kick, interception and fumble – certainly fueled that league-leading total.
And quarterback Dak Prescott finished with a 104.2 QB rating, the third highest in the NFL and second highest of his six-year career (104.9 in 2016), and a career-high 37 touchdown passes, fifth most in the NFL.
So why am I so worried about this offense, though we're still three weeks from even Easter? Why the offseason consternation?
After all, while the defense is mostly given a pass for last year, simply because that side of the ball went from historically poor to OK, let's not forget the Cowboys gave up an average of 27.3 points in the six losses, including the playoff one to San Francisco. Why, Dallas gave up at least 25 points in four of the six losses, and only twice were the Cowboys able to win a game scoring no more than the 20 points against the Chargers and Vikings.
While the 19th-ranked defense did lead the league with 34 takeaways, the offense was the team's lifeblood (see above). But when it wasn't, the Cowboys struggled, averaging just 20.5 points in the six losses, scoring no more than 17 points in half of those and 22 in another.
Biggest cloud overhead?
Wide receiver, and well founded.
Because if the offense indeed was this team's lifeblood, then the passing game was the infusion. For real.
Understand their logic behind releasing Amari Cooper, but no matter what the numbers say of 2021, "Coop" still was the Cowboys No. 1 receiver. Not in catches, I get it. But clutch catches. Move the chains catches. Key touchdown catches. Just go ask defensive coordinators which receiver they concentrated on taking away.
Now then, I get it. The Cowboys have decided CeeDee Lamb will capably take over that role and Coop's base salary was collaring them. Lamb led the team with 79 catches for a team-high 1,102 yards and six touchdowns, just two behind the eight each of Cooper and Dalton Schultz.
But in half of their 18 games, CeeDee had no more than four catches, and in the loss to San Francisco he chipped in one. And now without Cooper around, those defensive coordinators will put a game-plan bull's-eye on No. 88.
And here is what accentuates my concern: Michael Gallup. Great the Cowboys were able to re-sign him. And great his 2022 salary cap charge is a manageable $4.5 million.
But let's not forget that Gallup's ACL surgery wasn't until the second week of February. Generally, return to play is at least eight months out. A speedy one would be seven months. Count seven months out and you're through September. The season-opening week begins Sept. 8, the Rams playing host to that Thursday night season kickoff.
Now if Gallup isn't ready, that means, as it stands today, March 25, the Cowboys' top two wide receivers would be Lamb and the recently-signed James Washington. As for No. 3, and we know how much the Cowboys lean on three-receiver sets, that likely would mean the likes of Noah Brown or last year's fifth-round pick, Simi Fehoko. That is unless last year's late bloomer Malik Turner, still an unrestricted free agent, is re-signed. And he wouldn't be a bad third choice until Gallup returns since the previous choice, Cedrick Wilson, was signed away by Miami.
Kinda makes you want to squirm.
And all this is presuming for the time being that Washington, entering his fifth year in the NFL out of Oklahoma State and Stamford, Texas, where he was a high school standout, can handle second-receiver chores he's rarely faced in Pittsburgh.
Good thing is he's ecstatic to be here. Grew up a huge Cowboys fan on the family farm just west of Abilene. Said he always wanted to be a Cowboy, and that's with both an upper- and lower-case C. Even had a dog growing up named Cowboy.
Would be a great homecoming story.
"I feel like with everything that transpired in Pittsburgh, I didn't really get to show my full self," he said. "We had a crowded room at receiver. Nothing against anyone else, but I just felt like there's a lot of meat left on the bone. I didn't really get to fully develop myself and make strides like I wanted to."
Well, he's going to get his chance here with the Cowboys. And possibly for at least a month or so to prove he's capable of being a team's second receiver, one that is worthy of more in free agency than the one-year veteran benefit deal counting just $1.047 million against the cap. Sort of in the same prove-it opportunity Jayron Kearse took advantage of with the Cowboys this past season.
In 2021 with the Steelers, Washington, a noted speedster and lead receiver while at Oklahoma State, was a rotation guy, starting just two games, catching 24 passes for 285 yards and two touchdowns. His 11.9-yard per-catch average catches your eye, especially since that average is 14.3 over his 114-catch, 1,629-yard career.
The 2019 season was his best in Pittsburgh, a career-high 634 snaps (68 percent) turning into 10 starts, 44 catches for 735 yards and a 16.7-yard average, numbers more resembling his Okie State career that turned him into a second-round pick in 2018. Washington also established his single-game highs that year, six catches in one game and 111 receiving yards in another.
As Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is known to say, if you see it once, you know the talent is there.
"I want to grow my game and be who I was in college," said Washington, who lives on his own Texas working ranch between Merkel and Tye, again, west of Abilene, "because I feel like who I was in college is who I (was) meant to be."
That would be key. So would a speedy Gallup return.
All is why the Cowboys should have no problem selecting a wide receiver on the first or second day of the NFL Draft, starting on April 28. After all, if offense is their game, then they need to strengthen that receiving corps. And the draft is the least expensive way of doing so, although heading into the last week of March the price for any remaining talented wide receivers should be falling fast.
But most of all, Lamb must reward the Cowboys' confidence in him, not only grabbing him with their 2020 first-round choice (No. 17), but also anointing him as the next No. 88 and feeling comfortable enough to trade Cooper for but a fifth-round pick and salary cap relief.
That confidence grows when they see Lamb's 153 catches in his first two seasons are a franchise best, and he becomes the first Cowboys receiver to exceed 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons. And his five 100-yard games in the first two years rank third in franchise history, behind Bob Hayes' eight and the six of the Original No. 88 Drew Pearson.
Also grows knowing at some point, maybe even the first month of the season, Gallup will return, and although he would not commit to a timetable, his attitude is SAP – Soon As Possible.
Because the last thing the Cowboys want is to get into this 2018 notion of "receiver by committee." That committee consisted of Cole Beasley, the rookie Gallup, Alan Hurns, Deonte Thompson, Rod Smith, Tavon Austin, Noah Brown and the injured and eventually suspended Terrance Williams playing just two games.
That approach failed miserably after parting ways with Dez Bryant after the 2017 season, and why the Cowboys, after a 3-4 start to the season and with an offense struggling mightily, were motivated to send a first-round pick to the Raiders for Cooper.
And the turnaround, going 7-2 the rest of the way and winning the NFC East at 10-6, was high-octane fueled by Cooper's 53 catches for 795 yards and six TDs in nine games – a 16-game pace of 94 catches, 1,414 yards and nearly 11 touchdowns.
So, step right up, CeeDee. You, too, Cowboy James. Someone lay hands on Gallup to speed up his recovery. Maybe get Turner signed. And unveil a Masked Receiver, Brown or Fehoko or whoever in the draft or of note late in free agency.
Then I'll feel better about this offense.
So will the Cowboys.