- A power runner back in form. A No. 1 receiver to create a threat. A young quarterback with the weapons he needs and a rekindled confidence. As they head into their showcase game with the Redskins, and the division title within reach, the Cowboys believe they’ve made the right moves to be where they need to be
This was the vision for the 2018 Dallas Cowboys right from the jump. By their own design, they were getting younger, and, in doing so, banking on a growing defense to take serious steps forward. And with a 24-year-old quarterback, and turnover at receiver and tight end, plus a generational group of offensive linemen, it made sense to saddle up behind the tailback they took fourth overall in 2016.
This was always going to be Ezekiel Elliott’s offense. Amari Cooper has made it go.
“We were getting suffocated a little bit,” Cowboys COO Stephen Jones said Tuesday morning, from his office. “Eight-, nine-man boxes, and teams really didn’t have to worry about a particular guy hurting them. Now they have to really pay attention to Amari, where he is and what he’s doing and I think it’s loosened it up for other guys, like [Cole] Beasley and [Michael Gallup and [Geoff] Swaim, and then of course Zeke.
“And not only Zeke running the ball, but Zeke catching the ball out of the backfield. He was right at 200 yards again in total offense [against Atlanta]. We’re executing, we’re getting in a rhythm. Obviously we’re not where we want to be, but we’re at least scoring some points on the road now. And we have to build on this.”
By the looks of it, there’s plenty to build on—tangible evidence that what Dallas envisioned in spring and summer is coming to life—as we hit the stretch run and the Cowboys take their shot at catching the Redskins in the NFC East on Thanksgiving.
In this week’s Game Plan, we’re going to prepare you for that one, and the rest of Week 12 in the NFL, with a look at Rivalry Week in college football mixed in, plus your questions on the Packers’ future, the spot the ’Skins are in with Colt McCoy, the Colts’ surge, and more.
We’ll start with the resurgence of the Cowboys, and who they want to be as a team, and how Cooper’s arrival has played into it. And to get going there, there’s the whole story of how Dallas landed on the exiled Raider in the first place, which is where Jones and I started our conversation, when I asked whether or not the deal itself was an acknowledgement of an offseason miscalculation at the position.
“We tried to address it,” Jones said. “If anything—and I’m not trying to defend anything—we tried to get Sammy Watkins, and we got outbid for him, and then there really wasn’t anybody else that we really wanted to get. And we wouldn’t have given a 1 for Amari if it weren’t for him being 24 years old and us feeling like he could be a part of our team for the next seven to 10 years. That was a big deal.
POWER RANKINGS: Saints still on top, Bears, Cowboys rising
“No. 1 receivers don’t grow on trees. Certainly, we wanted one, we tried to get one. Then when we had the opportunity to get one we really liked, we pulled the trigger. So I don’t know if it’s acknowledging as much as it is trying to do it the right way.”
The Cowboys also looked at the idea of drafting Maryland’s D.J. Moore or Alabama’s Calvin Ridley, but thought too highly of Boise State LB Leighton Vander Esch to jump on either with the 19th pick in the draft. Right or wrong, they were trying to be disciplined in their pursuit—which led them to a tough spot in October, with a struggling young quarterback piloting a stagnant offense.
So the research from there centered on receivers on the trade block (Cooper, Kelvin Benjamin, Golden Tate), and college players who might merit high-round consideration in April (such as Ole Miss’s A.J. Brown and D.K. Metcalf, Oklahoma’s Marquise Brown and Stanford’s J.J. Arcega-Whiteside), with the idea of looking at prices and determining whether waiting or splurging would be the right play.
Cooper, as the Cowboys saw it, was better than anyone they’d draft in 2019. In fact, based on where they figured they’d pick, even if there was someone of Cooper’s ilk coming out, they felt like they might have to spend an extra 1 to be in position to get him. The flip side was one obvious drawback to acquiring a young veteran.
“We certainly understood what would we give up. With that number one pick, you’re going to get four years of a really nice cap number, and hopefully a real good player,” Jones said. We certainly gave that up when you give up a 1 for Amari, knowing we’ll probably have to start looking at extending his deal, starting maybe as early as next year. So that was the downside. But to get a guy who’s 24 years old and you’re extending him at 25, for anywhere from four- to a six-year deal, it kind of fit in.”
And Cooper has fit in quickly. His production thus far—14 catches for 169 yards and a touchdown in three games—has been modest. His impact hasn’t been, and it’s enabled Elliott to show himself, as he did in 2016, as an elite talent worthy of building around.
How exactly has Cooper’s impact manifested itself? I checked in with Cowboys football staffers for specific examples against the Falcons:
• On the Cowboys’ eighth play from scrimmage, a second-and-9 from the Dallas 37, Falcons safety Jordan Richards flashed toward the line, then bailed into Cover 2 (protecting against a shot). Elliott got the ball, and it was Richards who made the play on him. But since Richards was about 13 yards from the line at the snap, Elliott had eight yards before he could get to him, turning second-and-9 into third-and-1. Dallas wound up with a field goal on the possession.
• On a first-and-10 from the Dallas 47 later in the first quarter, the Cowboys called a screen with Cooper coming in motion on a jet-sweep action. At the snap, Prescott faked the hand off to Cooper, and middle linebacker Foyesade Oluokun followed him. Prescott threw Elliott the screen on the backside, and Oluokun was left in chase, catching up to Elliott only after a 43-yard gain.
On a third-and-5 on the game-winning drive, both Cooper (the No. 1) and Beasley (Prescott’s go-to on third down) were doubled—leaving Gallup one-on-one wide left, where he won a comeback to pick up 10 yards and the first down. Then, on the next play, Elliott ran a circle route into the middle of the field, where there was space to move cleared by the receivers getting respect downfield.
On these plays, there are, of course, answers explaining the logic in making the move. Yes, they really liked the potential Cooper showed his first two years in the league, and they liked his age, and felt he could become a high-end producer. But just as important, as they saw it, he could unlock what they hoped their offense would become all along.
“It’s very hard to win, being one-dimensional, and really trying to have the type of team you want to have to contend to win a championship,” Jones said. “And we just felt like we have a lot of pieces in place. We still feel like we’ve got a great offensive line. Obviously we’ve got Zeke, and just felt like we needed to upgrade out on the receiving corps.”
Nowhere does that idea show up more than in Elliott’s numbers. The two last weeks, he’s rushed for 273 yards and two touchdowns on 42 carries, and caught 13 balls for 115 yards and another score. It’s also helped Beasley and Gallup settle into roles that fit what they bring to the table. And with the offense controlling the pace of play, an improving D is protected—it played just 55 snaps against the Falcons.
For now, it’s also worked to take the heat off eighth-year coach Jason Garrett and Prescott, who’s completed 69 of 99 throws for 721 yards and three touchdowns, against a single pick, in three games since the trade.
“Certainly we hit some bumps there, where, as you say, the first people to get the criticism are the head coach and the quarterback,” Jones said. “They know it comes with the territory, especially with the Dallas Cowboys. But as you’ve seen what Jerry’s said in the media, we have the utmost confidence in Jason, he knows our personnel, he knows our system, and I feel good about his leadership.
“And obviously we think Dak’s unique in terms of his leadership skills and intangibles. And I think he’s gaining confidence. He had an amazing rookie year—it may be his curse, but he’s building.”
And who knows? Maybe a tough four-game swing on deck—Washington, New Orleans, Philadelphia, at Indy—has us thinking differently about Dallas in a month. After all, the jury’s still out on Prescott, and it wasn’t long ago that some in the building were getting the sense the Joneses would consider a coaching change.
But the upshot is that, for now, this looks better than just good. It looks just how they drew it up.
WEEKEND WATCH LIST
NFL players in the spotlight for Week 12:
Bears QB Chase Daniel: Today’s start will be Daniel’s most significant since the 2008 Big 12 title game at the end of his senior year at Missouri. When this season’s over, he’ll have pulled down more than $28 million over the course of his career, and the Lions game will be only his third NFL start—the previous two coming on the final Sunday afternoons of seasons, without much on the line. This isn’t like those days on 2013 and ’14. The Bears are 7-3 and in the thick of things in the NFC. And an improving Lions run defense figures to put the ball in Daniel’s hands. Can the Bears maintain their game-and-a-half lead in the NFC North?
Ravens QB Lamar Jackson: We detailed Baltimore’s plan in the MMQB—the Ravens hoped to have their rookie QB throw it 25 times against Cincinnati, and he only wound up chucking it 19 times compared to 27 carries, which the Ravens acknowledge is too much. So what will we see against a Raiders team coming off a win?
Redskins RT Morgan Moses: With so many injuries up front, Washington needs the guys left from the line’s foundation to play big. And until Trent Williams is ready, Moses is really the big one left. Also? Yeah, his assignment this week is no layup, with Demarcus Lawence likely to line up over the right tackle plenty.
Vikings CB Xavier Rhodes: He’ll likely get Davante Adams this week, and did a really good job on the Green Bay star in Week 2. Adams finished with just 64 yards on eight catches. And if you can take Adams away, it’s a little easier to deal with Aaron Rodgers for a defense.
Seahawks MLB Bobby Wagner: Carolina/Seattle is quietly a very important game in the NFC wild-card race—particularly now that both teams are out of their respective division races. And Wagner’s role in containing Cam Newton is always important when these two lock horns.
TWO FOR SATURDAY
A pair of 2019 draft prospects to keep an eye on this weekend:
Ohio State DT Dre’Mont Jones (vs. Michigan, Fox, noon): Buckeyes defensive line coach Larry Johnson has had quite the pipeline coming out of Columbus the last five years. And while Jones is not Nick Bosa, he’s proven he’s not just a product of playing next to Bosa either. Through 11 games, and playing with some nicks, he’ll go into Saturday’s showdown of 10-1 teams with 12 tackles for losses and 7.5 sacks, in addition to 34 tackles, numbers posted despite the struggles of plenty of young guys around him on the Ohio State defense. “He’s a classic 3-technique,” said an AFC college scouting director. “He’s a one-gap penetrator, quick, athletic, fast, disruptive. He’s just not going to be for everybody. If you’re a 3-4 team, I’m not sure he has a home in your base defense. But 4-3 teams will love him. He plays hard, he’s competitive. He’s not really strong or stout at the point of attack, but he wins off the snap.” Jones might have snuck in the first round if he’d declared after last year, his redshirt sophomore season, and has a good shot at going in that range this time around. Playing well against a physical Michigan offensive certainly wouldn’t hurt his cause.
Washington S Taylor Rapp (at Washington State, Fox, Friday, 8:30 p.m.): The 6-foot, 200-pounder has 51 tackes, three sacks, three forced fumbles and two picks through 11 games, and that sort of versatility isn’t even what the scouts like most about him—they love the guy as a kid. “He’s a great football player, one of my favorite players in the draft,” said one AFC exec. “He’s a good, high-effort, instinctive player, a leader. And he can play in the box, in the slot and on the post. He’s talented, and I love the way he plays the game. Just a really high character kid.” Rapp will be tested six ways from Sunday this week, too, in the Apple Cup, with Cougars coach Mike Leach dialing it up on the other sideline.
Answering your Twitter questions:
From Paul Stoker (@Paul_Stocker): Does Alex Smith’s injury give Jay Gruden a pass with Dan Snyder if the Redskins fail to make the playoffs?
I wouldn’t call it a free pass, because I don’t think he was in much trouble to begin with—Gruden’s done more to stabilize the franchise than any other coach since Snyder bought the team in 1999. He’s been integral in putting together a soundly built roster with its foundation through the lines of scrimmage. And the place is no longer a circus, which is significant, and a credit to the coach.
I’m also not so sure Colt McCoy represents some sort of massive step back from Alex Smith. His passer rating is 98.6 in limited action over four years under Gruden, and internally the Redskins expressed confidence in their ability to ride McCoy in 2017, had the Kirk Cousins contract dust up taken a turn for the worse.
So yeah, I know it’s not great to lose your starting quarterback to a gruesome injury, as the Redskins did. I also know there’s still a lot to like in where the team is at right now.
From ING Young Noah (@IndgYoung): Will the Colts go 11-5, or will they drop one more before the end of the season?
The Colts still play the Texans and Cowboys. And because they’re so young, it’s not hard to see some sort of toe-stubbing in a game they should win either. That said, and my audience knows this—I love where the Colts are at. So I’ll say that I do expect they’ll be over .500. And I’m willing to call my shot and say they’ll be a very real contender in 2019.
It’s starts with the quarterback, and Andrew Luck is playing as well as just about any quarterback in football. Then there’s the rookie-laden line that has not allowed a sacked since Oct. 4. And the Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate, in Darius Leonard, at linebacker. And an improving group of skill players. And you start to recognize how close the Colts really are.
From Here4Sports (@Here4Sports_): Did Goff jump Mahomes in MVP rankings? 5 turnovers ... I have Brees 1, Goff 2, Mahomes 3, [Rivers] 4, Gurley 5.
Good list, here. I’d have Brees first and Mahomes second, and I think all the Rams guys are complicated. How do you separate Goff’s production from Gurley’s? How do you separate Goff and Gurley from what Aaron Donald is doing at the wire of close games? And if you’re acknowledging those three, is it harder to credit Sean McVay for the ridiculous job he’s done since landing in L.A. 23 months ago.
I like that you acknowledge Rivers, too. Last Sunday notwithstanding, he’s had a career year. And while we’re there, if I was doing an MVP Top 5, Luck would absolutely be on it, at this point. Have I said enough nice things about the Colts yet?
From Jeff Ofsdahl (@5ate2ten): Are there any rumblings of who might replace [Mike] McCarthy if he’s let go in GB?
First of all, I do think there’s a pretty good possibility this happens. There’s been edginess between McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers for some time—not that it’s all been unhealthy—and it just may be time for a change of scenery for everyone. It happened, you’ll remember, to Andy Reid, and Reid finding a new coaching home did him a lot of good. Maybe the same will be the case with McCarthy.
To me, the one name I believe makes sense for Green Bay is Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Two years ago, while the Niners courted McDaniels, the frontrunner for their GM job was Packers personnel man Brian Gutekunst. Now, Gutekunst is the GM in Green Bay, in the same spot (finishing up Year 1) that Ted Thompson was when he fired Mike Sherman and hired McCarthy.
The two did research on one another. The Niners felt they’d be a match—even as McDaniels had discussed the idea of Nick Caserio coming with him to California instead. And McDaniels certainly could do Rodgers some good. So there’s a name for the Packers.
From RW (@Rob_AirOne): Do you think NFL offenses are moving towards what we saw [Monday] night, and if so, how does that change positional value, if at all. Will “everything offense” be more valued over defense in future NFL schemes?
Every Super Bowl champion this decade has made major investments along the lines of scrimmage. And here are the No. 1 receivers for those teams: Greg Jennings, Victor Cruz, Anquan Boldin, Golden Tate, Julian Edelman, Demaryius Thomas, Edelman, Alshon Jeffery. Thomas, by the way, is the only receiver ever to win a title making more than $10 million per. And he did it with a quarterback—Peyton Manning, circa 2015—who couldn’t really throw.
That doesn’t mean things aren’t changing. But what I do know is that we’ve seen fireworks from great offenses in the past. And what we should know by now is that playing that way isn’t always an effective way to win in January. Generally, the teams that win big at that point are well-rounded teams that have answers for whatever the opposition is throwing at them.
From Danny (@BigLope85): Most likely to be one and done in playoffs? Saints, Chiefs, Rams, Steelers?
I love the Chiefs. I love Patrick Mahomes. But that’s who I’m going with here. I think the Saints win the whole thing. I think the Rams win a game at the L.A. Coliseum. And then there are the Steelers, who will likely play on Wild Card Weekend, giving them an easier first playoff game.
The Chiefs, on the other hand, may have to play those Steelers in the divisional round. And while some faces are different in this second phase of K.C.’s Reid Era, they have had their problems in the playoffs, going one-and-done three times before finally breaking through last year.
So I’m not going out on a limb and saying, yes, Kansas City loses its first playoff game, no question. But I do think that’s more likely than the any of the others bowing in their first postseason action.
From Kel Frazier (@KFraz3): CL Smooths consumed in Standish Shores on Saturday before noon?
No comment. See you then, tho. #GoBucks #BeatMichigan
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