Cowboys' offensive outlook for 2022: Why Dak Prescott, CeeDee Lamb hookup could take Dallas to new heights
It's not often that a play in Week 6 of an 18-week NFL season carries much meaning for a team's immediate and foreseeable futures, but that's exactly what happened on the last play of the Dallas Cowboys' 35-29 overtime victory at the New England Patriots in 2021. Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott faked a handoff to running back Ezekiel Elliott on the left before rolling back to the right side of the field, where he uncorked a perfect strike to wide receiver CeeDee Lamb in stride for the game-winning, 35-yard touchdown.
In the immediate aftermath, Prescott was wearing a boot on his right leg as he left the stadium. The Cowboys had won a measuring stick road game in Bill Belichick's house but Prescott had landed awkwardly on his right leg on the deciding play, leading to a calf strain. He would miss their next game, a Week 8 road contest at the Minnesota Vikings, but the message was clear going forward: utilizing Prescott's legs to create space for playmakers like Lamb in the passing game is the Cowboys' path to victory. Elliott is no longer the Cowboys' primary offensive weapon.
When Prescott and Elliott entered the NFL together in 2016, the running back was Dallas' workhouse, with Elliott leading the league in rushing yards in two of his first three seasons. However, Elliott's rushing yards per game has declined consecutively in each of his six professional seasons, which is one reason why head coach Mike McCarthy and the Cowboys are so enthused about fully re-incorporating Prescott's legs into their 2022 offense to pair with the electrifying Lamb, now that their QB isn't coming off a fractured ankle like he was last offseason.
"I think like anything, this is year three in the offense and the opportunity to move more potentially than he [Prescott] did in the past, as far as what he's being asked to do," McCarthy said in June. "I think he's clearly the thing that jumps out to me, is his movement ability in the scramble drills and scramble situations. The way he activates scramble drills. He's gotten more reps at it, it's more natural to him, so he looks really good."
Prior to his calf injury, Prescott was the NFL's highest-rated passer (143.3 passer rating) on plays where he left the pocket by design or when he improvised his way out into open space to pass in the first six weeks of 2021, according to Pro Football Focus. After the injury, both Prescott's efficiency on the move and Dallas' on-field success suffered.
That's why Prescott is following in Tom Brady's footsteps by hiring a full-time physical therapist on retainer. Brady famously connected with his full-time trainer Alex Guerrero and they have since developed Brady's lifestyle and training program, the "TB12 Method." As Brady has said many times as he's aged into his mid-40s, Prescott has claimed, as he approaches his 29th birthday on July 29, that he's in the best shape of his life.
"I'm in the best shape that I've ever been in…one, just because of my movement," Prescott said per the Cowboys' website. "I got a PT in the offseason -- someone I've worked with throughout the last year. I've paid him, made him full-time, my guy. Whether it's vacation or not, he comes with me. We work on these movements and stretches. I feel like, since the injury, I've trained more functionally than I ever have. So, I see it in my body, I see it the way I move and how the ball is coming out."
Even battling through coming off his fractured ankle from 2020 and a calf injury in 2021, Dak totaled career-highs in completions (410), completion percentage (68.8) and passing touchdowns with 37, which broke his predecessor Tony Romo's record of 36 set back in 2007.
Maintaining his lower body throughout the course of an entire season could be the key for the NFL's highest scoring offense (31.2 points per game in 2021) to make noise in the postseason.
CeeDee Lamb ready for his close-up
When the Cowboys traded four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Amari Cooper to the Cleveland Browns in March, the 23-year-old Lamb knew his time to be "The Guy" in the Cowboys receiver room is now.
"I've been ready," Lamb said. "That's just me and my competitiveness. That's in my nature. It's kind of how we grew up playing football. I'm always ready for my name to be called."
In terms of production, Lamb was the Cowboys' top pass catcher in 2021, leading the team in targets (120), catches (79) and yards (1,102). As a rookie the previous season, Lamb had been No. 2 in targets (111), catches (74) and receiving yards receiving (935) to only the Cowboys' $100 million man, Cooper. Last season, Lamb had 16 more targets, 11 more catches and 237 more yards than Cooper, who the Cowboys had traded a first round pick for in 2018.
Now, Lamb has the chance to establish himself as one of the league's best, as draft classmate and Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson has. Selected five picks after Lamb in 2020, Jefferson has set the NFL record for most receiving yards in a player's first two seasons (3,016) and tied New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas' record for the league's high mark in receptions in a player's first two seasons (196). Jefferson walked into a situation where his team's Pro Bowl wide receiver, Adam Thielen, was already into his 30s. Second to only Jefferson in career catches (153) and yards (2,037) from their draft year, Lamb now has a shot to pad his numbers as Prescott's clear-cut No. 1.
"My two other locker mates left, so I was a little lonely and decided he's [Lamb] the guy," Prescott said with a smile. "Obviously just being young, knowing that hopefully he's [Lamb] my receiver until I'm done playing. Just being able to bring him closer, more conversations since he's right there, accessible to talk, and just communicate."
McCarthy noted how things will change significantly for Lamb schematically entering his third season as a pro.
"This is a great opportunity for him personally," McCarthy said. "I think just the way we've established the offense, particularly in the passing game, the ability for those guys to play different positions, to create matchups and make it harder on the defense to double you and those type of things -- my point is, playing in the slot a lot last year and now playing the flanker position [where Cooper played]. We understand his rise in Year 3 that he's going to get a lot more attention from the defense, but he's doing all of the little things that are needed to get him ready to be the No.1 guy."
Last season, Cooper lined up out wide 68 percent of the time, and 32 percent of the time in the slot, according to PFF. Comparatively, Lamb's snap splits were 63 percent out wide, 37 percent in the slot and one percent out of the backfield. To McCarthy's point, being the sole Pro Bowl receiver on the Cowboys offense could lead to his 2022 snap alignment being more similar to Jefferson's from 2021: 75 percent out wide and 25 percent in the slot. Less time in the slot over the middle and more time spent out wide usually means less incidental contact with linebackers and more room to go through a route progression, both positives for receivers.
Lamb himself is relishing the opening, striving to solidify his place as the go-to option when the game is on the line, just like he was in overtime at New England last season.
"Most importantly just stepping up regardless of any situation -- first down, second down, just always being that guy that everyone can count on," Lamb said. "I want to be that guy."
Prescott-to-Lamb connection: A throwback to 1990s?
Now that Prescott has his year-round physical therapist and training regimen in place while Lamb has the undivided attention of his quarterback, the Cowboys are ready to fast forward to the 2022 season, the first phase of which starts on July 26 at their training camp in Oxnard, California.
"No, I'm never not thinking about football, so, yeah, physically I try to put myself in situations where maybe it's The Bahamas or different ways [to train] when you can't get around football," Prescott said. "You're almost forced to relax your mind a little bit and put all of that stuff away. So, now we're back. We're two weeks close to it. I think I need to get my mind back into it as far as the scheme and just everything. Super excited."
A healthy and focused Prescott-to-Lamb connection could potentially lead to a more consistently clutch combination, something the Cowboys have yearned for since the days of the 1990s when another No. 88, Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin, and his fellow Hall of Fame teammate, quarterback Troy Aikman, lifted the team to glory. Read More