So, as a certain hated division rival has advanced to the NFC Championship, the Dallas Cowboys are already working on fixing the issues that kept them out of the playoffs. One thing that was noticeable to everyone was the way quarterback Dak Prescott struggled during parts of the season, especially in the second half of it. A few days ago, executive vice-president Stephen Jones stated that one thing the staff is planning on doing is making the team more “Dak-friendly”, as reported by Jon Machota of the Dallas Morning News.
Making the offense Tony Romo-friendly was a common theme for several seasons. According to executive vice president Stephen Jones, they are planning to do the same for Dak Prescott. No idea why that wasn’t the emphasis heading into the 2017 season, but work with me here.
”Everybody here is all-in in terms of their belief that Dak can be a great player in this league and will be,” Jones said on 105.3 The Fan’s Ben and Skin show [KRLD-FM]. “How do we put concepts in place, how do we put a system in place that fits his skills? Obviously it worked out great even though we were predominately running a Romo-friendly offense with a few wrinkles that took advantage of Dak being young and fresh-legged and being able to have the mobility that he had.
“We were able to do that, but I think as we move forward, we have to really go in and critique and make sure that our concepts and what we’re doing offensively give Dak every opportunity to utilize his skill set and get the most out of him.”
It sounds like a great idea. But what exactly does it mean?
It is not surprising that the team is still largely built for Tony Romo. Prescott took over the team in 2016 when the goal was still to make it the best environment for Romo, and the Cowboys only had one offseason to begin making a transition. There were certainly things that could have been done better last season, especially by the coaching staff, but that cannot be changed. This is really just year two of making things centered around Prescott.
That still does not address the specifics. What will Dallas do for him? We are already seeing a lot of upheaval in the coaching ranks. The offensive line had its issues that must be addressed, along with trying to get Tyron Smith healthy. Some new receivers might be added to match up better with Prescott’s style and abilities. The contributions an improving defense can make must not be discounted, either.
I certainly don’t have all the answers, or even all the right questions. So I threw this open to the rest of the Blogging The Boys staff, and wound up with a very interesting set of thoughts about just how to approach things.
Cole Beasley was Dak’s favorite target so what did Dallas do last draft? Grab another slot guy. They were also interested in the explosive RB, Donnel Pumphrey, but the Eagles scooped him up before the Cowboys had the chance. I think the Cowboys are going to look for ways to put speed into the lineup, whether that be in the form of another WR or change of pace/third-down RB. Some fresh, fast legs that could run after the catch would make the offense more Dak friendly. When you look at the times the Cowboys offense did have success late in the season, it came in the form of big YACs by Bryant, Beasley, or hell...even Rod Smith.
I think we need more of that. Less “air yards” and more “leg yards.” If the team can get a player that is a threat to make a defender miss in the open field underneath, then maybe the deep passing game will open up more.
In general, I think we’re talking about adding some spread elements to the Cowboys heavy Air Coryell vertical passing scheme. It could include specifics like:
1. Utilize Dak’s ability to move the pocket and throw on the run, along with his ability to tuck and run. The Cowboys ran a few basic bootlegs and such, but defenses started to cover those well. Dallas’ playbook didn’t really have any counter plays to use when defenses where shutting down the basic roll-outs and boots. Dak is a threat outside the tackles with his arm and legs, the Cowboys need to cater to that more often, and have answers when defenses catch on.
2. Air Coryell is a timing offense where a QB is asked to envision a WR being open before he actually is, and the QB is sometimes encouraged to be aggressive and take chances. These traits fit Tony Romo perfectly. Dak is pretty cautious with his passing, he likes to see a guy get open instead of throwing him open. The Cowboys receivers just don’t fit with that as well. Getting some smaller, quicker guys on the field like Beasley and Switzer together could help with that.
3. Air Coryell basics usually ask the QB to read from deep to short. The Cowboys really like to run at least two vertical routes in a pattern and stretch the defense. I wonder if Dak would be a little more effective hitting more slants, crossing patterns etc. across the middle, and letting the receivers work for YAC. Spreading the defense out sideline-to-sideline, instead of vertically, can also help reveal pass coverage, making it harder to disguise the defense, and create easier reads for the QB.
4. Some of the route combinations used in other offenses, with the picks, rubs, bunch formations etc. could be useful in opening up a receiving corps that is not exactly great at creating their own separation. Doing some of these things could open up guys and allow them to get more YAC.
I think the bottom line is the Cowboys vertical passing game (Air Coryell) doesn’t fit Dak as well as it did Romo, so they should start altering the scheme somewhat to fit the personnel. In college Prescott was in a spread offense that ran the ball well. The Cowboys should crib from Dan Mullen. Sometimes I wonder if they limited the playbook in 2016 to things he liked because he was a rookie, then in 2017 they decided to give him the full offense, and now find that it doesn’t really fit him as well.
Playing off of what Dave is saying, Scott Linehan has had prolific passers in Matthew Stafford and Tony Romo over the past several years. Though he was great with Dak Prescott in his rookie year, teams catch up to you in this league. Look no further than all the attention that was paid to Cole Beasley this season. I’m sure Linehan would be the first to admit that the execution was bad but that they also probably needed to do more to help out Dak and that’s what ultimately got them beat.
They obviously want Dak’s mobility to become a bigger part of the offense but he can’t just take off and run like RGIII did. The coaches really to need to spend a lot of time looking at how to get mismatches like Cole Beasley and Ryan Switzer more involved. Getting Dak into rhythm by starting with some quick strikes will help the offense sustain drives.
Prescott certainly has some mechanical things to improve on as well as timing but he also needs his playmakers to do the heavy lifting. Where it was easier at times to allow Tony Romo to take over because of his knowledge of his “tailor-made” scheme, it’s equally as important for coaches to adjust the playbook now to fit a different style of quarterback. They have to be more creative and open to personnel changes where they may have shown reluctance to do so in the past. The team will certainly need to add some different talents to the repertoire this offseason but improvement cannot happen if they don’t know their personnel.
They’re not a vertical passing team any longer, this is a very important year for Dak Prescott but it’s even more imperative that these coaches put him in a position to succeed. They had “Romo-friendly” offseasons and now it’s “Dak-friendly” time. If they want to be “Dak-friendly” it’s going to take a commitment to changing their philosophies that have been in place for more than just a few years.
As a die-hard Mississippi State fan, I have been following Dak since 2011. So it’s been a while.
In a Dak-friendly offense, you need three things: a big-bodied outside wide receiver, a shifty slot, and a run game.
At Mississippi State, his go-to outside target was De’Runnya Wilson, a 6-foot-5, converted basketball player. The two were all-conference performers and helped take Mississippi State to the number one ranking for half of the 2014 college football season. The Cowboys have a guy just like that -- Dez. However, for whatever reason, the two just have not clicked very well. We have seen times (like the playoff game, the Steelers game, etc) where they look deadly, but usually they look out of sync. So, that certainly needs to change this offseason.
Dak loved to find his slot guys at Mississippi State. His go-to guys from that position were Jameon Lewis -- a quick, 5-foot-9 target -- and Fred Ross -- a bigger 6-foot-2 target, who was on the Cowboys’ radar in last year’s draft. He loves to have a guy that can create separation in the middle of the field. We saw his connection with Bease last season, but defenses took him out of the offense in 2017. Switzer showed what he can do against the Eagles in the season finale, so here’s hoping he gets a bigger role in the offense next season. A guy like Christian Kirk would be perfect in the draft. Taylor Gabriel or even a John Brown would be great for Dak from free agency.
And then, the run game. We all know that is what the Cowboys are built around. It’s why they have spent premium picks on the offensive line and took Zeke at number four. Dan Mullen’s offense at State was run-orientated. He used the run to set up the pass, unlike most offenses. Dak was used a lot in the run game for his first three seasons, but used his senior season to prove that he can throw from the pocket -- and he was successful, throwing for 3,793 yards and havibg a 29-5 TD-INT ratio while completing 66% of his passes on 8.7 AY/A.
I don’t think the Cowboys need to turn into the Panthers (or the Redskins with RG3), but I think Dak would benefit with having more designed runs here and there throughout a game. Obviously, we don’t need him carrying the rock 15 times, but perfectly timed runs -- in addition to the read-options they have implemented -- would add another layer to Dak’s game, in my opinion.
All-in-all, I think adding a slot guy and a speedy deep threat (either in free agency or in the draft) would really help Dak’s game evolve. His on-field relationship with Dez obviously has to improve, but I believe adding a shifty slot next to Beasley and bringing in a guy that can take a top off the defense (like a John Brown) would open up the run game, build Dak’s confidence, and even take defenses’ focus away from Dez.
One Cool Customer:
Here’s an example/thought that might fit into the narrative.
In 2013, the season started off badly for the Carolina Panthers. Their record was 1-3 after four games, and coach Ron Rivera was regularly featured very near the top of the seemingly ubiquitous and mind-numbing “Top 5 coaches on the hot seat” articles. Yet at the end of the season, the Panthers had won the NFC South with a 12-4 record and Coach Ron Rivera had won the NFL’s Coach of the Year award.
There are many things that went right for the Panthers after their slow start, but the one thing that I found the most interesting was relayed by Rivera in December, 2013, per Pro Football Talk:
”We had a little bit of a slow start and during that slow start,” Rivera said of first-year offensive coordinator [Mike Shula]. “One of the things that Mike and the offensive staff did was they went back and looked at — we have a library of all of Cam’s plays from college — they looked at what Cam did extremely well and said, ‘You know what, let’s adapt a couple of these ideas and incorporate them into what we do.’ [Shula] took three or four things that [Newton] did really well and we’ve incorporated that and put that into what we do as an offense. Mike has made it work and that has really helped us.”
Rivera explained that the study of Newton’s Auburn performances happened in September, after the Panthers fell to 0-2 with a loss at Buffalo.
”We went up to Buffalo, we were doing some things, took a step back and said, ‘What can we do to help the quarterback?’” Rivera said. “Mike and his guys said they were going to go back and take a look at it and Mike told me they really wanted to do it so we did it. He came to me and said, ‘Look, Coach, this is what I want to incorporate and this is why.’ Mike’s reasoning and his thought process is right on and I was really excited to hear, ‘Let’s take a look at some of these other concepts, somebody else’s ideas. It’s going to help the team, let’s do it.’ I was really excited to hear that.”
What Rivera is saying is that the Panthers seem to have adapted their scheme to fit their player talent, and that’s something I feel the Cowboys have not been particularly good at under Garrett.
I get that this team is always looking for ways to get better as they should be, but I think a lot of people are having a complete memory lapse of the 2016 season where Dak had the best rookie QB performance in NFL history....when he was playing for this team.
You want to help Dak? Strengthen the swing tackle position so if something happens to Tyron, the offense isn’t playing 10 on 11. Keep improving the secondary so when Dak runs in for the go-ahead score with a minute left, it’s enough to win the game. Keep trying to strengthen the interior line and LB group so that the run defense can be a strength.
When I listened to Garrett explain what Dak could add to this offense in the Dakumentary and then I saw it come to fruition in actual game situations, the team had geared the offense to fit Dak perfectly last year. Just because we lost a couple All Pros and it resulted in Dak getting his clock cleaned and him playing skittish doesn’t mean they need to re-invent an offense that can play in those conditions. Some changes here and there would certainly help, but fix the root cause.
Also, as if on cue:
In past years, Wilson used his legs when things broke down. Moving forward, the goal could be to make Wilson’s running skills not the last resort but the predetermined plan.
The potential plan to use a college-style offense could explain the team’s interest in Eagles quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo, who per Ian Rapoport of NFL Media is one of the candidates for the job. The Philly offense has those college concepts, as the Broncos and cornerback Chris Harris Jr. realized the hard way during the regular season.
To the points DannyPhantom made above, I would say we’re not advocating for a complete overhaul of the Cowboys offense, but there are definitely things Dak does differently from Romo, and the Cowboys should work those into the offense. There is no reason not to adapt your scheme to your personnel to some extent. As OCC said, the Cowboys seem to do this less than most teams.
As for missing key players, I feel like a franchise QB should be able to elevate the team even when things aren’t perfect. Look at what Carson Wentz was able to do when they lost Jason Peters, Darren Sproles, and some key defensive players. The offense, and team, kept functioning and winning. Players like Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees have this ability. The Cowboys, and to some extent Dak, weren’t able to do it this year and the team’s injuries/suspensions weren’t inordinate. Maybe an offense a little more tuned to Dak’s skills would have fared better. I’m not sure Dak will reach 2016 levels on a regular basis, but with some tweaks, I think he can play well enough to lead this team to where it wants to go.
That’s a lot of good thoughts. It will be interesting to see how many the team goes with. And it would not be surprising to see most if not all of them show up in what actually happens.
So what do you think? Add anything you think we missed, or offer your rebuttal in the comments.