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Cowboys' Four-Receiver Packages Not Successful

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Should Cowboys Use Four WRs?

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ARLINGTON, TX - NOVEMBER 18: Tony Romo of the Dallas Cowboys looks downfield for a receiver under pressure from John Hughes #93 of the Cleveland Browns at Cowboys Stadium.

With the selections of Gavin Escobar and Terrance Williams in the 2013 NFL Draft, there’s no doubt that the face of the Cowboys’ offense is going to shift, perhaps as soon as this season. The first change we’ll see will be more two tight-end sets. Remember, the Cowboys lined up with two or more tight ends on just over 30 percent of snaps in 2012, primarily because they were losing so often. Escobar’s presence and more favorable game situations could lead to two tight ends on half of snaps or more.

The ‘Boys now have three quality pass-catching tight ends, but the selection of Williams gives the team flexibility with their personnel packages. While Williams might have been drafted primarily as the eventual replacement for Miles Austin, the Cowboys would still be wise to utilize his skills in 2013. But don’t forget that slot man Dwayne Harris showed a lot of promise last season. Unless there’s an injury ahead of him, however, he likely won’t see the field often this year.

That’s because the Cowboys don’t typically run many four-receiver sets. I counted only 29 in all of 2012—fewer than two per game. Tony Romo passed on all 29 dropbacks, completing 17 of them for 172 yards (5.93 YPA), two touchdowns, and two interceptions. That’s a paltry quarterback rating of 69.9. It’s really no surprise; Romo and the ‘Boys have struggled mightily with four receivers in the past. That’s likely because the offense is forced into an empty-set with no one in the backfield, i.e. no threat to run the ball.

And it’s not as if the Cowboys run empty-set formations only in passing situations. Actually, only one of the 29 plays was in the fourth quarter and just eight of them were on third-and-six or longer. While there are certain advantages to employing four receivers (and a tight end) and spreading the field, it’s not really advantageous to do it on first-and-10 in the first quarter. When the defense knows a pass is on the way, the rushers can pin their ears back and come straight for the quarterback. With a struggling offensive line and no one in the backfield to pick up free rushers, that’s probably not the best idea.

So while the Cowboys have an interesting player in Harris, it wouldn’t be smart to force him onto the field as the fourth receiver. Instead, he’ll probably be relegated to competing with B.W. Webb for return duties.

Jonathan Bales is the founder of The DC Times. He writes for DallasCowboys.com and the New York Times. He's also the author of Fantasy Football for Smart People: How to Dominate Your Draft.

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