There’s no real secret about the plan the Dallas Cowboys have used in their 5-1 start for this season. They are going to use a physical, nearly unstoppable running game to control the ball and the clock. That will set up the passing game to exploit things if the opponent stacks the box to stop them on the ground. It is an offense that is designed to play with a lead, which in turn will benefit the defense, making their job simpler as the other team has to rely more and more on throwing the ball to catch up. While the Cowboys have proven they can come from behind, overcoming a 14-point deficit against the San Francisco 49ers earlier this year, they much prefer to get on the board first, and have in five of the six games so far this season.
It is really a throwback offensive plan, and the model is not hard to find. Jean-Jacques Taylor put his finger right on it in discussing how this all works.
The Cowboys play this style because Garrett saw the Cowboys win championships with it in the 1990s when he was the third-string quarterback. And it protects the Cowboys' defense, which is always going to be inferior to the offense because of how the Cowboys have chosen to build their team.
That paragraph also ties this idea to the first two articles in this little trilogy. The first refers to the stability of Garrett’s coaching staff, which has allowed him to develop and hone this approach. And the second talks about the prioritizing of the offense in allocating draft resources (as well as cap space). It all really comes together with the offensive scheme, which not only utilizes that concentration of talent on the offensive side of the ball to its fullest extent, but allows the defense to carry just enough of the load to stay on the positive side of the score.
What is somewhat overlooked is just how different this is from the approach of most teams in the NFL. The league has increasingly turned to the passing game as the model for success. Running the ball has been discounted so much that the fullback has become an endangered species. The Cowboys’ approach, however, is predicated on a couple of flaws in the pass-first approach.
First, a pass-oriented offense is highly dependent on the skill players, particularly the quarterback. And in recent years, the transition from college to the NFL has become increasingly difficult. More and more colleges use the read-option as the foundation to their offense. Hurry-up, no-huddle schemes are also prevalent, often with very simple route trees and limited reads to be made by the passer. These high-tempo attacks can lead to some mind-blowing numbers, as in the recent game between the Oklahoma Sooners and the Texas Tech Red Raiders. A 66-59 final score, 1,708 combined yards, and 185 total offensive plays - 109 of them by Tech alone. That is a pace that is simply impossible to manage in the pros, where each team can only have 46 active players on game day, as opposed to colleges that can rotate 70 or more players if needed. Attempts to replicate the college approach in the NFL have not met with success, most notably in the failure of Chip Kelly with the Philadelphia Eagles and 49ers.
The issues are most pronounced with the quarterbacks, but they also extend to the receivers and offensive linemen. That is where coaching comes into play, and the Cowboys have been very good at that. They have drafted well, but you have to credit Wade Wilson, Derek Dooley, Mike Pope, and Frank Pollack with the job they have done getting the offensive players trained and integrated into the Dallas scheme.
And it also reinforces just how incredibly fortunate the Cowboys were in winding up with Dak Prescott. It turned out that he is both very intelligent and possesses a tremendous work ethic. Those have allowed him to advance as a quarterback far more rapidly than anyone could have dreamed when he was drafted.
Running backs, in general, have an easier time transitioning to the pro game. The job of seeing the hole and making the right cut does not really change. And there is a more abundant supply of backs with pro talent than there are of any other position, with the possible exception of wide receivers. Even then, receivers have a harder time if they come from one of the systems that uses very limited route trees and a lot of reading and reacting to the coverage.
By making the running game the heart of the offense, the Cowboys have made it easier to find the talent they need. And they have done a superb job of acquiring players who can function at a very high level in both aspects of the offensive game.
The second thing that the Garrett blueprint does is exploit the way other teams are built defensively. For years, the trend has been towards speed defensively to stop the pass. Edge rushers, linebackers, and defensive backs have gotten faster and faster, but have necessarily given up some pure strength. The Cowboys counter that with power. Their offensive line often just runs over the defense. Often the line of scrimmage moves two or three yards forward before the running back even gets to it. When you add in a player like Ezekiel Elliott who is superb at getting yards after contact, and who can still outrun almost any defender on the field, you have a run game that can take over a contest, especially late and playing with a lead.
An important point about the Dallas scheme is that, while it may be run-first, it is most certainly not one-dimensional. That is why the quarterback is still so important, and why Prescott has been so crucial this season. The offense offers a dilemma to opposing defenses. You cannot put enough players up close to the line to stop the run and still take away all the receiving targets/rush the passer at the same time. The Cowboys will simply hit you where you are weak. With Prescott’s ability to use some run/pass and read option plays, there is no way to stop them consistently. And while that may be cited as another argument to keep him on the field instead of Tony Romo, Romo is a master at ball handling and misdirection in his own right. When Romo will return remains an open question, but just imagine the headache facing the first defensive coordinator to try and game-plan for him. All the game video of the 2016 Cowboys passing game will be largely worthless. Basically, they will have to dig out all the 2014 games - except that Elliott is not the same runner as DeMarco Murray, so they still have to study all the 2016 games. Gonna be a long week of prep. Plus, Romo returning is a far different proposition from a backup getting thrust onto the field out of necessity.
In a sense, Dallas has executed a major zig while the rest of the NFL is zagging. They have put a balanced power offense out there to face quick defenses built to stop the pass. It is not unlikely that other teams will try to follow their lead - it is a copycat league. But doing so effectively is another matter. Remember, it has taken five-plus years to implement this. And it has required a unified approach by the front office in bringing in the right personnel as well as the installation and execution by the coaches.
For the first six games of this season, it has worked beautifully. However, the Cowboys now face their biggest challenge in the defense of the Philadelphia Eagles. Of course, this makes three games in a row of facing the biggest challenge of the season, so they are probably getting used to that.
We still have to see how it all plays out, and things can certainly go south in a heartbeat in the NFL. But this year’s Dallas team has already shown resilience and depth far beyond that of last season. One thing is certain. They have a plan, and so far, it is one of the best in the league.