FRISCO, Texas -- On Dec. 9, Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Amari Cooper could not be stopped.
He caught 10 passes for 217 yards and three touchdowns, including the game winner in overtime, against the Philadelphia Eagles.
In the three games since, Cooper has 13 receptions for 83 yards, including five catches for 31 yards against the New York Giants in Sunday's regular-season finale.
As the Cowboys prepare for Saturday’s wild-card game against the Seattle Seahawks (8:15 p.m. ET, Fox), finding a way to get Cooper more involved is a must.
Is Cooper’s recent production a sign that teams are getting a read on what the Cowboys like to do with him after nine games? The Indianapolis Colts doubled him; he tallied four catches for 30 yards. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (four catches, 20 yards) made it difficult for him to get over the top. The Giants (five catches, 31 yards) sent help his way too, but ...
“We missed chances for him to have a big day,” Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. “We had a couple. And we hadn’t missed those [much]. We were actually kind of pretty hot with him on those, a couple of those that were 50-50 balls.”
Quarterback Dak Prescott missed Cooper on a slant-and-go in the fourth quarter that would have been a touchdown. Cooper dropped a pass and fumbled once as well.
“Some teams are very clued in to your personnel and want to take particular guys out of a play in particular situations,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “Other teams just play their defense. Obviously, Amari’s been a playmaker for us since we’ve gotten him. He’s made some real signature plays to help us win ballgames. He’s certainly going to be a focal point of the defense, as is [Ezekiel Elliott].”
The Seahawks play a lot of single-high safety, which creates one-on-one matchups similar to what Cooper faced against the Eagles.
“There’s a lot of excitement because there’s a lot of opportunity,” Cooper said. “When teams play two-high, kind of gets more difficult to catch passes over the top and things like that.”
The arrival of Cooper in an October trade from the Oakland Raiders helped change the trajectory of the Cowboys’ season. He gave Prescott an outside threat the quarterback did not have in the first seven games. A passing game that was stagnant now had some juice.
In nine games with the Cowboys, Cooper has 53 receptions for 725 yards and six touchdowns. Add his numbers with the Raiders (22 catches, 280 yards, one touchdown), and he had his third 1,000-yard season in four years. Projecting his Dallas numbers over a full season, Cooper would have finished with 94 receptions for 1,289 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Expecting Cooper to put up otherworldly statistics each game similar to those against Philadelphia would be foolish, but he should average more than 28 receiving yards per game.
It is, however, something of a pattern for Cooper’s career.
The numbers can be staggering at times. He has 15 games with 100 or more receiving yards. He has 31 games with fewer than 50 yards. With the Cowboys, the high point was the matchup with the Eagles, but he had eight catches for 180 yards against the Washington Redskinsand two other games with more than 70 receiving yards. He also had four games in which he did not top 36 yards.
The up-and-down productivity also is a pattern for the Cowboys. Over the years, a long-standing complaint about the Cowboys’ offense -- whether Garrett, Bill Callahan or Linehan was calling plays -- has been that their answer to extra attention on a star receiver is to throw it to somebody else and not make it more difficult for a team to double-cover the star.
In Houston, DeAndre Hopkins had 115 receptions for 1,572 yards and 11 touchdowns. The Texans’ second-leading receiver, Will Fuller, has 32 catches for 503 yards and has not played since October. Somehow Hopkins still gets the ball a lot.
The Cowboys choose to look at Cooper’s recent statistical lull differently. With the attention paid to him by defenses, other players have had big days or big plays.
Against the Giants, tight end Blake Jarwin caught seven passes for 119 yards and three touchdowns. Cole Beasley caught six passes for 94 yards, including a 32-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.
When the Cowboys clinched the NFC East with a Week 16 win over the Bucs, Michael Gallup caught a touchdown pass and had a 31-yard reception.
“I’ve told people this: When we added [No.] 19 to our offense, there was going to be an effect that goes full circle, and I think that had a lot to do with [Jarwin] and Beasley’s game and a couple of other guys,” Linehan said. “These guys all of a sudden have more of an effect on what we’re going to do.”
Linehan believes it will come full circle for Cooper with others producing around him. At least, that’s what the Cowboys hope happens on Saturday.
“A lot of it is the game plan, how they’re playing us,” Prescott said. “I know just by the way we’re practicing, this team is ready. Everyone is ready, everyone is going out there, the receivers, they all want the ball, they’re all doing the best they can to get open. Everybody is locked in and ready to go.”