More money, higher expectations: Amari Cooper’s big payday puts the Cowboys’ star WR under critics’ microscope

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If money is how we keep score, as Ted Turner and other members of his exclusive tax bracket have advised, how come Amari Cooper just got served?

First it was Rex Ryan — not fake Fabio, the other one — ranting on ESPN about the equity of a $100 million contract for someone he labeled “the biggest disappearing act in the National Football League.” Rex also called the Cowboys receiver something so vulgar, some of the league’s best cornerbacks rallied to Cooper’s defense. And one of them now works in Philly. Crazy. Like an IRS agent standing up for you at the tax deadline.

Rex eventually apologized, sort of, but stood behind the sentiment that Cooper doesn’t show up on the road, doesn’t play well against great corners, doesn’t come up big in crunch time.

Then an anonymous NFL executive piled on, telling the Athletic, “I’m sorry, Amari Cooper helps, but he does not tilt the field.”

Until Cooper became the league’s highest-paid receiver, only Cowboys fans had reason to question whether he’s earned his money. Quite a turn of events. He was everybody’s favorite when he almost single-handedly turned around the Cowboys’ season after the trade with the Raiders. “Coooooooooooooop” became a curtain call. On cue, he picked up last fall where he left off.

Then in the second half of last season, as Michael Gallup ascended, Cooper faded badly, right up to the bitter end of the finale when he went poof.

No one would say for sure why he wasn’t on the field at the Linc when it counted. Was it because he kept playing through injuries? Was it really Tavon Austin’s turn?

Or had Jason Garrett simply lost confidence in his No. 1?

Sean Payton wouldn’t have pulled Michael Thomas in the clutch. Ditto with Dan Quinn and Julio Jones. They’re expensive because they deliver when it counts.

That’s the thing about getting paid. Expectations rise accordingly.

There’s no place to hide, no excuses to make, no slack to cut.

Anyway, let’s consider the merits of Rex’s complaints. Before going there, though, check his overall numbers last season. At 25, he made his fourth Pro Bowl with career highs in yards (1,189), yards per catch (15.1) and touchdowns (8). His footwork continued to make cornerbacks dizzy. He’s not only fast, he’s also a tough guy to bring down. And if he occasionally drops a ball he shouldn’t, the book on him in Oakland, it’s not because of bad hands. He’s simply so intent on turning upfield, he sometimes leaves without his delivery.

A closer inspection of Cooper’s home/road splits backs up one of Rex’s criticisms. Cooper averaged 108.6 yards per game at JerryWorld and just 40 on the road. That’s quite a disparity. Julio Jones, for example, averaged 86.3 yards in road games last year, including 134 in San Francisco.

Here’s why those road performances mattered: Four of Cooper’s five worst — 5 catches for 48 yards in New Orleans, 1 for 3 yards against the Jets, zilch in Foxborough and 4 for 24 in Philly — were losses. Clearly, the Cowboys find it difficult to win without his A game.

But were those road performances on Cooper, or should the game plan shoulder the blame?

He was targeted 12 times against the Eagles, which was as many targets as he got in the other three games combined.

Remember when critics complained after the Cowboys’ three-game losing streak that they’d become too pass-happy and needed to put the ball in Zeke Elliott’s hands? Might account for the fact that Cooper had a half-dozen touchdown catches in the first half of the season and just two in the second.

And the Cowboys went 3-5 in the second half after going 5-3 in the first. Guess it wasn’t all about Zeke after all.

Next point by Rex: Cooper failed against the league’s best corners. Certainly didn’t do well against either Darius Slay or Stephon Gilmore. Only 38 yards against the Lions and, as previously noted, nothing against the Patriots. Also interesting to note that Slay and Gilmore were two of Cooper’s defenders after Rex’s rant. Gilmore, in particular, called Cooper one of the toughest guards in the league and counted his release among the top two.

Rex’s last complaint — about clutch play — was problematic. Don’t count Oakland, where the only playoff game Cooper saw, Connor Cook was his quarterback. In two playoff games with the Cowboys, he’s caught 13 passes for 171 yards and a touchdown. Not exactly overwhelming numbers, but Cooper wasn’t the reason they lost to the Rams, either.

Here’s something Rex didn’t mention but comes up from time to time: Unlike his peers among the NFL elite, Cooper is no diva. He’s smart, thoughtful, introspective. Good teammate. Even so, it’d probably help his case with critics if he brought a little more attitude sometimes. Make it look like it bothers him when he doesn’t get the ball. Worked for Dez Bryant, anyway.

If Cooper’s not a top five receiver at this point in his young career, he’s certainly in the top 10. Problem is, when you’re paid like you’re No. 1, everyone’s expecting commensurate results. They’re not as forgiving of your occasional shortcomings.

No matter how much money he makes, Cooper can’t afford any more games like the one in Philly. He’s under the microscope now. Dak Prescott would do well to remember all of the above when his ship comes in.


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