FRISCO, Texas — Tucked into a corner of the trainers’ room inside the visitors locker room at FedEx Field last October, Jerry Jones, Stephen Jones and Will McClay altered the future for the Dallas Cowboys.
The Cowboys lost to the Washington Redskins 20-17 after Brett Maher‘s field goal attempt to tie the game hit the left upright. The Dallas brass spoke in hushed tones, and it was one of the few times Jerry Jones, the Cowboys owner and general manager, did not speak to the media following a game.
A couple of days before the contest, Stephen Jones, the executive vice president, spoke with then-Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie about the availability of wide receiver Amari Cooper for a possible trade. The Cowboys offered a second-round pick. Then offered a second-rounder and another pick.
With a 3-4 record and their season at a crossroads, the Cowboys agreed the next day to give up their 2019 first-round pick to acquire Cooper despite their poor history of first-round deals involving receivers Joey Galloway and Roy Williams.
In their return to FedEx Field on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, Fox), the Cowboys bring a passing game that saw quarterback Dak Prescott throw for 405 yards in the season opener against the New York Giants but one that was far different than what was on display a year ago.
“[McKenzie] eventually just told me, ‘Stephen, we don’t want to trade him. This is more Jon [Gruden].’ The other part of it was they felt they would have a hard time getting a deal with him, and [McKenzie] said, ‘I’m not just going to part ways with him for anything less than a one,'” Stephen Jones said.
“I was pretty convicted that he was convicted that they were not going to take anything less than a one. Obviously, Jerry and I going through Joey Galloway and Roy Williams, we had kind of vowed we were never giving away a one again, but then we started going down that road of who’s in the draft, what we were giving up if we’re picking 10th or 25th or whatever it was and just felt like we weren’t going to be getting a guy better no matter where we were. We felt like that was going to be our No. 1 need, receiver … Once we finally wrapped our hands around, ‘Hey, we’ll give away the one,’ there was no ifs and buts about it, and we called the Raiders back.”
In the seven games before Cooper was acquired, Prescott averaged 202.4 passing yards per game. He completed 62.1% of his passes and had eight touchdown passes and four interceptions.
In the 10 games since Cooper was acquired, Prescott is averaging 287.2 passing yards per game and completing 71.8% of his passes. He has 18 touchdown passes and four interceptions.
“It’s not just him [Cooper], it’s a lot of things,” Prescott said. “It’s the way the plays are being called, it’s the way that I’ve been able to see things in the latter part of the year, as I’ve said over and over that’s when things started to be more clear, I guess you can say. That allows me to go out there and play comfortable, play fast, be confident in the decisions I’m making. What that does is opens up the yard. We’re able to push the ball down the field, we’re able to make throws underneath. When you have guys like Amari and guys like [Michael] Gallup you see, Zeke [Ezekiel Elliott] out of the backfield, they can go get a lot of yards after the catch, so it’s fun to get those guys the ball to do that.”
Cooper has 59 receptions for 831 yards and seven touchdowns in 10 regular-season games with the Cowboys. Projecting that over a 16-game season, Cooper would have 94 receptions for 1,330 yards and 11 touchdowns. Prior to the Cooper trade, the last major in-season trade the Cowboys made was acquiring Roy Williams from the Detroit Lions in 2008. In 40 games with the Cowboys, Williams had 94 receptions for 1,324 yards and 13 touchdowns.
“[Cooper’s] really good. He wins a lot,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “He wins in man-to-man coverage. He presents himself well to the quarterback. He’s not someone who is all over the place as a route runner. He’s just pretty clean. He’s comfortable to throw to; he’s got a very good feel for recognizing man vs. zone coverage and in zone. He finds friendly spots for the quarterback, as well. He’s a good football player.”
In his first game against the Redskins for the Cowboys, Cooper had eight catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns last Thanksgiving.
“I would just say we have playmakers all across the board. We can run first. We can pass first. It really doesn’t matter,” Cooper said. “I think we can get the job done.”
As Prescott said, a quality passing game has to be about more than one receiver.
As much as wideout Dez Bryant dominated, Terrance Williams put up quality numbers. As much as Terrell Owens dominated, there also was Terry Glenn and Patrick Crayton. When Miles Austin went to back-to-back Pro Bowls, there was Jason Witten, Crayton, Roy Williams and a rookie in Bryant.
As much as Cooper has dominated since the trade, Gallup has come on. In seven games without Cooper, Gallup had 10 catches for 190 yards and a touchdown. In the 10 with Cooper, he has 30 receptions for 475 yards and a touchdown.
In the Week 1 win against the Giants, Gallup caught seven passes for 158 yards, including a 62-yarder.
“You’ve got Amari Cooper on the other side; you better watch out for him, as well,” Gallup said. “I’d definitely say don’t sleep on me no more, either.”
The Cowboys had seven pass plays of 20 yards or more against the Giants. They did not have more than five in a game a season ago. Randall Cobb, the No. 3 receiver, caught four passes for 69 yards, including a 25-yard score, against the Giants. Witten and Blake Jarwin also added touchdowns.
“We’re talented on offense, but as I’ve said and I’ll continue to say, we just all have to be the same page,” Prescott said. “We’ve done a good job doing that, and now it’s about whatever number that was, boosting it up this week and just getting better. And we’re going to do that each and every week.”
The Cowboys are in a far different place now than they were after their trip to FedEx Field last season.
“I’ve not thought that much about what would’ve happened if we’d not [traded for Cooper],” Stephen Jones said. “I do think all the time we’re glad we made it. A lot of times when you give up a one, you regret giving up your one, which a lot of teams do — and we’ve been one of them. Did it twice before and just so happened to be at receiver. But the great news is we keep looking up and saying how pleased we are with that trade. It’s worked. It’s helped us.”