The Dallas Cowboys sit atop the NFC East with a 5-1 record, have won five in a row and have outscored their opponents this year by 52 points. The Cowboys have accomplished this with little pass-rush on the defensive side of the ball — and oh yeah, without their starting quarterback, Tony Romo, and with one of the league’s best receivers, Dez Bryant, appearing in just three games and catching only 11 passes on the year.
Obviously, the rookies are the story and what everyone is rightfully talking about. Dak Prescott has been so impressive filling in for Romo that one of the top quarterbacks of this generation could be getting “Wally Pipped” by the rookie signal caller.
Less surprising, Ezekiel Elliott has already established himself as one of the best running backs in the entire league. He has been simply outstanding, is getting better every week and is already over 700 yards rushing, having gone over 130 yards on the ground in each of his last four games.
Now, the league’s best offensive line, although that group was missing one of the best linemen in the league in Tyron Smith for much of the year, has surely helped both Prescott and Elliott’s cause a great deal. These great players up front create holes consistently for Elliott as well as protecting Prescott, and that running game has certainly opened up the play-action game for Prescott as well.
Dallas’ coaching staff is getting the most out of Prescott with its scheme and offensive tactics, but the rookie has been extremely good on his own and has thrown just one interception in his 182 attempts. While many look at this passing game as short and controlled, Prescott’s 8.2 yards per attempt ranks only behind Tom Brady and Matt Ryan amongst passers that have attempted at least 50 throws in 2016. The rookie isn’t being bashful.
Prescott’s yards per attempt numbers are obviously impressive, but even more so when you factor in how little Bryant has played. And while Bryce Butler has filled in surprisingly well in Bryant’s absence and Terrence Williams has pitched in with a big play or two and has stepped his game up overall, Jason Witten is beginning to show his age. It is now safe to say the future Hall of Fame tight end is declining, which was bound to happen.
So while it is clear that the Cowboys’ offensive line, running game and quarterback are doing their job and then some, where is this receiving production coming from? The answer is an inauspicious one: Cole Beasley.This is Beasley’s fifth season in the NFL, all with Dallas. He caught 52 passes last year for 536 yards and five touchdowns, all career-highs. Beasley became an important part of the Cowboys’ passing game last year despite Romo being injured, Prescott obviously not yet in the equation and just some terrible quarterback play and overall offensive efficiency in 2015.
This year, efficiency is the key with this offense, and Beasley already has 39 receptions for 390 yards to go along with three touchdowns in six games. Despite doing a high percentage of his work from the slot, Beasley is averaging close to 12 yards per catch, which implies that he and Prescott have developed a great rapport. On tape, Beasley has been even better than his stats indicate.
Beasley is the epitome of today’s slot receiver. He has the right build, the short area quickness, the ability to read coverages on the fly, the sure-handedness and even the general appearance for the role. He looks like Wes Welker or Julian Edelman out there.
But Welker and Edelman torture (or tortured, in Welker’s case) defenses with Tom Brady running their offense and distributing the ball. Many would think that throwing to slot receivers is easy. And in some ways it is, in that quarterbacks obviously don’t have to drive the ball deep downfield with power throws.
But developing timing and being on the same page is absolutely crucial in such a relationship. Think about it. If you are a wide receiver operating out of the slot, you are doing almost all of your work in a confined area around a lot of huge, nasty defensive players. When you get hit, your much smaller body gets abused by linebackers and defensive linemen. Rarely are you bumped out of bounds by cornerbacks after a sideline route. There isn’t much room to work with.
As a result, many quick-hitting routes from the slot are option routes where the receiver and quarterback have to read the coverage on the fly, break off their route at the right point, get the ball out sometimes before that receiver break is made and complete the pass in traffic. To greatly simplify: If a coverage player is playing with outside leverage, the route needs to break to the inside, and vice versa.
The point here is that building such a great relationship like the one Prescott and Beasley are already showing usually takes a great deal of time. For Prescott to be consistently getting the ball to Beasley not only on time, but extremely accurately so that Beasley can run after the catch — which is where much of his yards per reception has come from — is highly encouraging.
With a great running game in place, Bryant ready to return and the relationship Prescott has already developed between himself and Beasley, there is an awful lot to get excited about with the foundation of Dallas’ offense.