Are the Dallas Cowboys’ receivers the problem?


The Dallas Cowboys passing game has struggled this season. Here’s why the receivers may not carry the blame…

The Dallas Cowboys’ passing game has been abysmal in recent weeks. In fact, the last three weeks alone, the Cowboys have ranked last in passing yards. That’s behind Chicago, New York, and even the backup situation in Green Bay. It’s dead last in the NFL.

On the season, Dallas ranks only 29th. So it’s not like they were lighting it up before this recent slump either. Something is clearly wrong and it seems everyone and their brother has someone in mind to blame. But who’s really to blame and who’s simply taking the role of scape goat?

The point is the Dallas Cowboys receivers are getting open. They just aren’t getting the ball.

The Dallas Cowboys receiving corps has taken their share of the blame this season. Forecasted as one of the most dynamic units in the NFL before the season began, few will argue they’ve disappointed this season. If you look at the numbers it’s hard to argue otherwise.

People watching the games on television see a bunch a guys who can’t break their single coverage and can’t create separation. It seems like quarterback Dak Prescott simply can’t find windows to throw through.

If you’re listening to the broadcasts, watching ESPN, and tuning into talk radio you’ve no doubt heard something along those lines. And nothing you’ve seen with your eyes provides evidence to the contrary, so the receivers MUST be the problem, right?

Not so fast.

The Numbers

ESPN has been tracking some pretty important stats this season that could exonerate the Dallas pass catchers in this matter. Through their next gen stats, ESPN has calculated the average amount of separation NFL receivers have been forcing on their routes.

How did the Dallas Cowboys do?

First, let’s gain a little perspective. Based on receiving yards this season, we can look up what kind of separation the NFL’s top-five receivers are getting. We can compare that with the Cowboys’ top four receivers and determine if they are indeed the problem or if the problem is something and/or someone else.

Top Five NFL Receivers and Average Yards of Separation

Antonio Brown:  2.7 average yards of separation

DeAndre Hopkins:  2.1 average yards of separation

Julio Jones:  2.4 average yards of separation

Adam Thielen: 2.6 average yards of separation

Keenan Allen: 2.6 average yards of separation

Now compare these accomplished receivers, all with well over 1,000 yards, to the Dallas Cowboys receivers who are under question.

Top Four Cowboys Receivers and Average Yards of Separation

Dez Bryant: 2.4 average yards of separation

Terrance Williams: 3.3 average yards of separation

Cole Beasley: 2.4 average yards of separation

Jason Witten: 2.3 average yards of separation

Not much of a difference is there? Say what you want about Dez Bryant’s sloppy routes. Or mock his limited route tree. But he creates the same amount of separation as Julio Jones and Julio Jones is widely regarded as the most talented receiver in the NFL.

The truth is, separation has never been a very big part of Bryant’s game. Frankly, he never really looks open when he’s in man coverage. His way to success has been to win those contested battles when the ball is in the air. If anything these next gen stats are shockingly good for Dez. Based on them, one could surmise Dez Bryant could be putting up Julio Jones’ numbers if he was the one playing on Julio Jones’ team.

Witten is much the same. He’s never expected to break free, wide open. He’s a master of positioning who wins those closely contested battles. It’s surprising to see he’s created this much separation.

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One would expect a shifty slot man like Cole Beasley to get more separation than just 2.3 yards, but given the extremely limited routes this offense uses him on, it probably shouldn’t be surprising.

I get it, Coach Linehan —  Bease is the best in the NFL running those “out” routes, but the rest of the NFL knows that too. Think we could use him downfield a bit more? I digress…

Terrance Williams is getting a ton of separation this season. The numbers say he’s one of the best in the NFL at getting open.

Maybe he should be targeted a little more than the paltry 41 times he has. Heck, he has a 69.49 catch percentage so it’s not like he’s squandering his oppertunities.

The Dallas Cowboys receivers are getting open. They just aren’t getting the ball.

So you see, maybe the Dallas Cowboys receivers aren’t the problem. Could they be better? Of course. I think we’ve established the fact everyone on this team could be playing better right now. The thing to take away is that recasting this particular area of the team this coming offseason wouldn’t do the passing attack much good. The issue is bigger.

Next: Will Cole Beasley replace Jason Witten as offensive safety valve?

While it’s fun to pin the blame on Dez and company, it’s not really fair when you compare their average yards of separation to the rest of the NFL. In coming days and weeks we’ll look at other areas of the team (like coaching and passing) and explain WHY they have a bigger hand in the blame.