It wasn’t intended to be a shot at former Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant.
But the team’s all-time leader in touchdown passes, who was unceremoniously dumped in April and remains unsigned, is the proverbial elephant in the room when talk turns to the team’s revamped receiver corps based on precise route running and being where they were supposed to be on time.
Receiver coach Sanjay Lal was answering a lingering question about whether the Cowboys were “going to have down-the-field guys who can go up and get a ball,” which was a Bryant specialty. His answer came with a zing at the end.
“I would think so,” Lal said. “I would rather have down-the-field guys that go run down a ball and score than live in the back shoulder world. We want touchdowns. We have some of those.”
Of course, the back shoulder throw was a bread and butter play for Bryant during his heyday with retired quarterback Tony Romo.
Current Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott’s inability to master that throw has been blamed as one of the reasons for Bryant’s downfall in production.
If truth be told, the back shoulder is only a wrinkle in an offense. It’s not the foundation of a passing game or scheme.
Lal is a master technician who replaced the disappointing Derek Dooley in the offseason. He said the Cowboys have enough quickness and explosiveness to make plays down the field and score touchdowns with the additions of Tavon Austin, Deonte Thompson, Allen Hurns, rookie Michael Gallup to go along with holdovers like Cole Beasley and Terrance Williams.
He said his job is to make sure the Cowboys are fundamentally sound in their timing and route running to make life easier for Prescott.
“That is my job,” Lal said. “They will be where they are supposed to be and they will run detailed, nice-looking routes. We are going to turn the tape on and be proud of what we put on tape.”
It’s well chronicled that route running was a strong suit of Bryant’s, which is blamed by those within the organization for his decline as he got older after succeeding earlier in his career in his elite athleticism.
With Prescott being compared more to Hall of Famer Troy Aikman in his preference to go through his progressions and throw to the open receiver, route running is now at a premium for the Cowboys.
“He can throw blind,” Lal said when asked how it helps a quarterback. “He doesn’t have to double hitch. He can cut the ball loose. We are always preaching cut it loose on time. How can you do that if you don’t have confidence in your receivers? It’s our job to make it that way.”
What’s also going to help the Cowboys’ offense be more unpredictable and potentially more explosive is that all the receivers will be able to run routes from different spots on the field, rather than as it was in the past.
The diminutive Beasley can no longer be typecast as a slot receiver who just does the quick stuff in the middle. He will line up outside along with the speedy Austin, putting two 5-foot-8 receivers on the field with the 6-1 Hurns in the slot.
Lal says having more speed on the field is an advantage for the Cowboys.
Now the Cowboys will narrow their focus as camp goes on because as much as they want to be interchangeable, they need to find out what each receiver does best so they put them and the offense in the best position to succeed.
In addition to running crisp routes, being where they are supposed to be on time and being versatile with knowledge of all the concepts of the passing game, Lal is working with all of them on having an aggressive and decisive release from the line of scrimmage to beat bump and run coverage.
He calls it hint, convince and vanish: hint where you want the defensive back to think you are going, convince them you are going there and then vanish with acceleration in the opposite direction.
It has already paid dividends for Beasley in training camp, who is much more decisive than he was last year.
The Cowboys could keep five, six or seven receivers, per Lal.
Here is his take on the leading contenders, save for Noah Brown, who has been sidelined through the first week with a strained hamstring.
Beasley: “I have seen an intelligent football player with great quickness that gives us the ability to move him everywhere.”
Hurns: “Hurns is very bright. He can play everything. He rarely messes up. He is doing a nice job.”
Gallup: “He is really fluid. He is not polished yet. But he has the skill to be a good route runner and he brings juice. He is really springy and sudden and has a large catch radius.”
Williams: “He was diligent in the meetings in the offseason. He understands what we want to do technique-wise. But he didn’t have the four months doing it. So he is behind. He is playing catchup.”
Thompson: “I had him in Buffalo. I know him. He is what I remember. The more reps he gets, the more you will start seeing he can run other routes and be a complete receiver. He has always been productive when he has been in games. Hopefully, that is the case.”
Austin: “He brings energy. He is that veteran guy that I can say, ‘Get them to do this.’ He has been that spark plug of the group. He has been great and it’s genuine. Guys see right through the fake stuff. That was a nice surprise, because I didn’t know that.”