FRISCO, Texas – The Cowboys led the league in offense during their 12-5 campaign last season.
No player caught more touchdowns than wide receiver Amari Cooper’s eight, the four-time Pro Bowler contributing 865 yards to the productive attack.
Still, the Cowboys traded Cooper and what would have been a $ 22 million salary cap hit to Cleveland last month. They lost production as well as an experienced, veteran route runner in the process.
How can the offense begin to compensate?
Allow tight end Dalton Schultz, who tied Cooper with eight receiving touchdowns, to explain.
“There’s a lot of room for everybody on our offense to grow in terms of football IQ,” Schultz told local reporters by phone Monday. “Understanding not only what the call is and what your responsibility is but why Kellen is trying to call the call and where those concepts fit in in the game flow. … Understanding more than just what’s on the surface level of these concepts, and maybe the ultimate goal of what we’re trying to accomplish by running or calling certain plays out of certain situations.
“There’s definitely a lot of room to grow there.”
Undoubtedly, offensive coordinator Kellen Moore deserves a share of credit for the attack that averaged 407 yards and 31.2 points per game. But the Cowboys failed to sustain the balanced run-pass attack they won six straight with earlier in the year. Run fits became muddier, routes less precise. Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy felt his team didn’t properly adjust to defenses’ increase in schematic variety.
Blowouts against overmatched division opponents skewed the team’s season statistics. And still, Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott’s completion percentage dipped from 73.2% in the first half of the season to 66.3% after the bye, sputtering toward a 53.5% performance in the wild-card loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Prescott’s passer rating across those periods plummeted from 115.0 in six games to 97.8 after the bye to 69.3 in the playoff loss.
Schultz, whose 75% catch percentage led all Cowboys weapons who received at least 40 targets, believes stronger mental grasps of offensive wrinkles and technique nuances will alleviate some issues. The team collectively began that process Monday.
Already, roughly 30 Cowboys players had joined consistent captains workouts in March and April, McCarthy recently said. But with the official start to the offseason program Monday, players now not only receive more direct strength-building instruction but also can meet meet coaches in classrooms for system installation.
Schultz and fellow Cowboys targets will also continue throwing sessions with Prescott, who a year ago was limited by rehabilitation from two ankle surgeries. Schultz said the receiving corps is “definitely ahead” of last year getting time on task with Prescott, which owner Jerry Jones and McCarthy each identified as a top offseason priority.
The Cowboys will aim to not only return production but also better deliver efficiency this year, from a run game anchored by Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard to Prescott’s passing game featuring Schultz, third-year pro CeeDee Lamb, newly re-signed Michael Gallup (likely to miss the first couple games while completing his ACL tear recovery) and free-agent acquisition James Washington.
“Getting the timing, the spacing and the details of the passing game,” McCarthy said of OTA work. “Particularly against max coverage and aggressive coverage, opportunities we didn’t do the best against last year.
“I’ve always felt in the past that the offseason program was a real strength of how I operated and that we were able to take leaps and bounds, especially as a perimeter group.”
Schultz and his teammates know how necessary that growth is after losing Cooper and receiver Cedrick Wilson Jr. (602 yards, six touchdowns in 2021) this spring.
“Obviously Amari’s one of the best receivers in the league, my personal opinion,” Schultz said. “Obviously we’re a better offense with him. Unfortunately, we do not have him, so the next step is just having guys step up.
“I think these guys are ready to take the next step in this offseason.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter JoriEpstein.