Of all the punishment CeeDee Lamb absorbed one game into the Dallas Cowboys season, the most significant hit may have been delivered from inside the ownership suite. Twice, no less.

Just days after director of player personnel Stephen Jones made a pointed remark about Lamb’s performance in the team’s 19-3 season-opening loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, owner Jerry Jones doubled down on the criticism. The message? Dallas needs Lamb to live up to his ownership-hyped expectations, which framed him as a true No. 1 receiver after the Cowboys pulled the plug on Amari Cooper in the offseason. Lamb catching only two of 11 passes thrown in his direction for 29 yards against Tampa certainly didn’t fit the bill — nor sit well with the brain trust.

“We’ve certainly got to step up and do better,” Stephen Jones said on Monday, speaking to the team’s flagship radio station 105.3 The Fan. “The passing game goes hand-in-hand, the quarterback and the receivers. Certainly, we’ve got to be better there. CeeDee has got to improve and work his way into being the No. 1 receiver we think he can [be].”

By Friday, Jerry Jones had seconded that notion with the same radio station, including some slightly more biting commentary.

“People are covering your best receiver. That happens,” Jerry Jones said. “What do you do? You’ve got to play through being covered. You’ve got to catch balls covered. … My point is every team in the league is faced with the same thing. They’re going to have their best receiver double covered. What the best receiver should do is play through that coverage.”

CeeDee Lamb had a tough season opener in the Dallas Cowboys' loss to the Tampa Bay Bucs on Sunday. Is the pressure already mounting on the star receiver? (Cooper Neill/Getty Images)
CeeDee Lamb had a tough season opener in the Dallas Cowboys’ loss to the Tampa Bay Bucs on Sunday. Is the pressure already mounting on the star receiver? (Cooper Neill/Getty Images)

For a team that was selling the idea of Lamb being a clear upgrade over Cooper just a few months ago, it was an eyebrow-raising moment of criticism at a remarkably early stage of the season. Especially after ownership spent months making it clear how unhappy it was with Cooper’s combination of salary, production and availability last season. Not only did that trio of factors prompt a fire sale of a good young player — dumping Cooper to the Cleveland Browns for a 5th-round pick — it led to Jerry Jones essentially suggesting Dallas would be better off in 2022 with Lamb at the top of the depth chart.

That makes the early criticism a bit surprising, given that few players on offense played particularly well and head coach Mike McCarthy is already fielding questions about the play calling of offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. Now the talk about Lamb’s play is likely to raise additional second-guessing about the Cooper trade, which has already been a hotly debated issue in the fan base for months.

But the quick and critical move toward Lamb’s performance also raises more problematic questions. Has Dallas seen something it doesn’t like about Lamb’s play now that he has worked in the No. 1 wideout role for the past few months? Is there more going on here than one bad game? And if the answers to those questions are “no”, then why doesn’t ownership feel like Lamb deserves a one-game mulligan before leaning into criticism about his performance?

Whatever the reasoning, Lamb’s play will now be a focus moving forward, measured against Cooper’s performance in Cleveland — which was good on film in Week 1 despite being undercut by some mistakes from Browns quarterback Jacoby Brissett. Not to mention a brewing comparison against Michael Gallup, who has also been celebrated in the past by Cowboys ownership as a player worthy of being considered a No. 1 wideout.

Add in the play-calling dynamic of McCarthy and Moore and it’s a lot of drama early for the Dallas offense. And none if it is likely to get better before the return of star quarterback Dak Prescott and his broken thumb.