FRISCO, Texas -- Since purchasing the Dallas Cowboys in 1989, Dallas Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones has had a type at wide receiver.
From his first year through 1999, Jones had Michael Irvin. When Irvin’s career ended because of injury, Jones went out and made a major trade for Joey Galloway. A knee injury in Galloway’s first game prevented him from reaching the potential the Cowboys had hoped for as the post-Triplets Era cratered. In 2004, the Cowboys traded for Keyshawn Johnson. Two years later, they brought in Terrell Owens.
In 2008, they traded for Roy Williams from the Detroit Lions but saw Miles Austin rise out of obscurity. In 2010, the Cowboys drafted Dez Bryant in the first round and saw him become the franchise leader in touchdown catches over the next seven seasons.
From Irvin to Owens to Bryant, the Cowboys had some of the pre-eminent receivers in the NFL, but those days, at least for 2018, are over.
“I think that you can estimate that there are 10 No. 1 receivers in this league and 22 others get it done in another way,” executive vice president Stephen Jones said. “I think Jerry said it a week ago: We have come to grips that we are not going to have a quote un-quote No. 1 wide receiver, a la Julio [Jones], a la A.J. Green, a la Antonio Brown. We’re just not going to get it done that way.”
As the Cowboys moved toward their decision to walk away from Bryant, they added pieces in free agency to a group that included Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley. First, they signed Deonte Thompson. Then they added Allen Hurns.
In the draft, they did not see any of the top receivers as sure-fire No. 1 types, especially as rookies. They liked the potential of Courtland Sutton, but he was gone before they could pick in the second round. Ultimately they added Michael Gallup in the third round and Cedrick Wilson in the sixth.
“We really had a big grouping of receivers that were a lot of varying opinions in terms of our debate in our room with scouts and coaches as to where guys should fit in this draft,” Stephen Jones said. “It was a debate, a lot of looking at film. Everybody had them sorted different ways, and it was a challenge, but the good news is that we came up with one of them that we really think can make a difference for us. One of the ones that is from here locally [Sutton] is a big guy who has a chance to do something like that. I don’t think it's going to happen overnight, but I may be wrong.
“I don’t think that we’re going to live in a world right now that we used to live in with Dez, a true No. 1 guy.”
Without using the phrase, the Cowboys will be going to a "wide receiver by committee" unit in 2018.
The Cowboys did not have a hard-and-fast rule when it came to Bryant, but if defenses played single-high safety, the ball would go to Bryant on the outside more often than not.
“When you have a marquee player, you want to get him the football, you want to give him chances, you want to give him at-bats. You want to give him opportunities to change the game,” coach Jason Garrett said. “That is not a bad thing. That is a good thing, but you always want to balance that and understand that can be an objective for you. You want to go other places with the ball based on what the defense does as well.”
Of the receivers on the roster, only Hurns has a 1,000-yard season. He caught 64 passes for 1,031 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2015 for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Williams’ most productive season came in 2015, when he caught 52 passes for 840 yards and three touchdowns. Beasley led the Cowboys with 75 catches in 2016 for 833 yards and five touchdowns. Thompson’s best season came last year, split between the Chicago Bears and Buffalo Bills, with 38 catches for 555 yards and two touchdowns.
None of that is superstar numbers, but the Cowboys believe the passing game can work.
“What you try to do is you try to attack them a lot of different ways when you don’t have that one prominent guy,” Garrett said. “The ball should go everywhere based on the coverages and plays that you have. It’s ‘plays vs. coverage,’ and hopefully you have enough guys that can win their individual matchups.”
Tony Romo benefitted from having a big-time receiver in Owens, Austin and Bryant during his time as the Cowboys’ starting quarterback. But he made the background singers, so to speak, such as Laurent Robinson, Patrick Crayton and Williams, a lot of money as well.
“Initially, there will be some success because it’ll be hard to determine who to double-team and what they’re going to do defensively,” Romo said. “It’ll be a little more random. What happens is when the tape gets out there throughout the season, it gets more difficult. Teams, once they get tape on you, then your big-time players need to step up and create plays. That’s something they’ll have to overcome a little bit, but someone will step up. I think when Miles was here, he wasn’t Miles before he was Miles. I know that’s a funny way of saying it, but he became Miles Austin because he had that opportunity. I think the Cowboys know that, and they’re hoping that someone else can step up and do that same thing.”