As far as NFL franchises go, there are more followers than leaders. The league is naturally conservative. Most teams are hesitant to do something different, but when one team finds something that works, you can be sure that others will quickly follow, although often with far less success. The gold standard at the moment is the New England Patriots, who are appearing in the Super Bowl for the ninth time in their history, and who seem to show up in the AFC Championship every year. Albert Breer in his latest MMQB Game Plan post at Sports Illustrated touched on how their opponent in Houston, the Atlanta Falcons, got there largely by copying the Tom Brady blueprint at quarterback with Matt Ryan. It was certainly influenced by the fact that Atlanta GM Thomas Dimitroff was hired out of New England. But it is just another example of the copycat nature of the NFL.
But the Patriots were not the team most often mentioned by Breer in his piece as being copied around the league. Three other examples came up later on - and in all three, the team that is being looked to for a path to success is the Dallas Cowboys.
The first was one that has already been brought up here at BTB, the “Dak Prescott effect”. As Breer points out, the success Prescott had in Dallas is making teams rethink what can be done with a quarterback from a college spread offense.
This week is the unofficial start of 2017 for most of the NFL, and the kickoff in earnest to draft season, with the coaches joining the process in Alabama that the scouts have undertaken for months. That means storylines will start to emerge, and this year, there’s no more interesting one than Prescott breaking down what so many believed about spread quarterbacks, and what it means for the ’17 crop.
As it stands now, Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer, North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky and Clemson’s DeShaun Watson are fighting to be the top quarterback taken. All three are from college spread systems. Trubisky may be the most ready to play in a pro system, but he’s only started for one year. One exec told me that Watson should probably sit for a year, and Kizer is “two years away” from being ready to play.
And the “Prescott effect” is real. This was the top takeaway in a Senior Bowl article in the Buffalo (New York) News:
Possible winner of the "He Could Be Another Dak Prescott" Award is Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs, a member of the South squad. He doesn't have the "wow" factor Prescott or Carson Wentz had at last year's Senior Bowl, but he did make consistent improvement during the three full practices Tuesday through Thursday. Dobbs has excellent mechanics, throwing a nice, tight spiral and releasing the ball quickly. He sees the field well, makes good decisions and showed more of a commanding presence by his final workout. An aerospace engineering major, his intelligence is off-the-charts and serves him well on the field.
This was almost inevitable, of course. But that was just the first time the Cowboys would crop up in the Game Plan post.
The next dealt with running backs.
Where do the running backs go? LSU’s Leonard Fournette, Florida State’s Dalvin Cook (who has his own off-field history) and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey lead a historically strong and deep class at a position that’s been devalued in recent years. The quality of this group, plus Ezekiel Elliott’s impact in Dallas, should help change that.
This is perhaps more significant as far as the way the Cowboys are influencing the rest of the NFL. They were one of the first teams to look at a retro approach to the offense, using a powerful run game to exploit the fact that defenses are more and more structured to stop the pass. With a trend to faster and therefore smaller defensive lineups on the field to match up with speedy and elusive receivers, as well as get to the quarterback in a hurry, teams have a harder time stopping a smash-mouth running attack. Jason Garrett spearheaded re-establishing that in Dallas, and the Cowboys have ridden it to the playoffs in two of the past three seasons. Now other teams are taking notice. It is an unavoidable fact that there are never enough true franchise quarterbacks to go around, so the running game offers teams another way to try and get the job done. Of course, it is even more effective when you can pair a stud running back with a real NFL quarterback like the Cowboys have. And it may be a very long time before another team does that in the same draft again.
The third component to the Cowboys offensive success is, of course, the offensive line. It was built through the draft under Garrett, and once again, others seek to emulate them, per Breer.
This isn’t the best offensive line crop. The 2017 class is considered deep and strong everywhere but at quarterback and along the offensive line. A number of teams are eager to borrow the Dallas blueprint—Miami already has—and sink resources up front. This year might not be the best year to do it.
This is more than just bragging. It is about the Cowboys being seen as leaders in the league. They have built what is being recognized as an elite offense, and done so in an unconventional manner for the league (and they thought Chip Kelly was the innovator). And the offense is young as well, which means that the success should be sustainable for years.
Now they need to improve the defense to be at least closer to the level the offense has reached. It is not a condemnation of the Cowboys that one side of the ball is markedly better than the other - that is more a reflection of how teams usually have to go about things in the salary cap era. But if they put the resources into the defense the way they have the offense of late, namely by finding good players, there is every reason to expect the team to just get better for several more years.
Garrett is an offensive-minded coach, so it is hardly surprising that he would first get that part of his team right. But now he needs to make sure that the team takes care of that defensive unit. If he and the scouting staff can do that, then we may not be just daydreaming about seeing the Cowboys get to the Super Bowl before long.
And then other teams will have something else to try and copy.