IRVING, Texas (AP) -Patrick Crayton was so excited about the potential for the Dallas Cowboys' offense this season that he made a bold prediction this summer.
Crayton told backup quarterback Brad Johnson the Cowboys were going to take aim at the NFL record of 556 points set by Johnson's 1998 Minnesota Vikings.
``Brad,'' Crayton said, ``we can put up 557.''
``That's a LOT of points,'' Johnson replied.
``I don't care,'' Crayton said.
Four games into the season, the Cowboys are well on their way. And Crayton is a bigger reason than expected.
Forced into the starting lineup by an injury to deep threat Terry Glenn, the former small-college quarterback overcame a gruesome finger injury in Week 2 and an embarrassing drop in Week 3 to have the best game of his career this past Sunday. His seven-catch, 184-yard performance included two touchdowns, pushing Dallas' total to 151 points, 22 more than the '98 Vikes had after four games.
``We're right on pace,'' Crayton said Wednesday.
Crayton's value to the Cowboys goes beyond prognostications. It's about reliability.
With defenses likely to double-team fellow starting wideout Terrell Owens, and more and more secondaries keeping an eye on Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten, Crayton becomes a key piece of the offense. There's no doubt he'll have opportunities; the trick is making the most of them, perhaps even enough that teams scale back on their coverage of Owens and Witten.
``I love it,'' Crayton said. ``No one wants to sit on the sidelines. You don't want to be labeled `just a third receiver.'''
Especially not a fourth-year guy whose contract is up after this year.
Crayton has 13 catches for 262 yards and two touchdowns, ranking third to Witten and Owens in each category. However, Crayton's average of 20.2 yards per catch is the best on the team and seventh best in the NFL.
His numbers would be even better had he not been shut out by Miami. At least he had a good excuse; his right pinkie finger got bent sideways in the first half. It was an open dislocation that required five stitches at halftime.
But, wait, that's not all.
Crayton's also is the team's punt returner. His average of 13.9 yards per return is sixth best in the NFL, including a career-best 49-yarder in the third quarter against the Dolphins, even after the hand injury. His returns have certainly been needed while big-play return threat cornerback Terence Newman is getting over a foot injury.
``We thought we could use him as a guy who could just go back there and catch the ball,'' coach Wade Phillips said. ``But he's made some big punt returns for us in four games. He's been outstanding. I feel real good for him.''
There has been one forgettable moment, a drop in Chicago of a ball that hit him in the hands in the end zone with no defender nearby.
``It wasn't the finger,'' Crayton said. ``It was a drop.''
Crayton told receivers coach Ray Sherman he owed him one for that play. He paid his debt Sunday against St. Louis.
The Rams were determined not to let T.O. beat them, so P.C. took full advantage with his career-best numbers on catches and receptions. His touchdowns, a blitz-beater and a fade, covered 59 and 37 yards. They came with only two snaps between them, taking a 14-7 halftime lead to 28-7 midway through the third quarter.
In the locker room afterward, Phillips said Crayton earned a game ball. Crayton immediately gave it to Sherman.
As for Owens, he was fine with Crayton stealing the show. He even proclaimed the game ``St. Patrick's Day.''
``I'm learning that's going to be the case; anybody is going to have a huge day,'' said Owens, whose three-catch, 33-yard day was his quietest of the season. ``One day it's me, then it's Witten, then it's Crayton.''
Owens showed his support on the field, coming from behind the play to provide late interference from the final defender on Crayton's long touchdown. Owens actually was flagged for hitting the guy in the back, but officials ruled that Crayton already had crossed the goal line.
``He ran me down in the process, too,'' Crayton said, laughing. ``Oh well.''
Crayton celebrated one of his scores by kissing the goalpost. Considering the lack of originality, that's not something he got from Owens.
``I try to keep up with 81,'' Crayton said. ``But he gets a few more opportunities than me.''
So far, that is.

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