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The one (nearly) unstoppable play for the Dallas Cowboys

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And how it shows play-calling is an uncertain business.

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Detroit Lions v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

If you’re like me, you can’t get enough of watching the Cowboys’ perfectly executed 38-yard touchdown screen pass from Sunday’s 26-24 victory over the Detroit Lions. It’s truly a thing of beauty.

The play combines so many strengths of the Cowboys offense:

  • Ezekiel Elliott’s all-world open-field running ability.
  • The athleticism of the Cowboys’ offensive line.
  • The innovative scheme that opened the play and put players in a position to succeed.

Wait, what? Scheme? Innovation? Success? Those are not three words we’ve seen combined very often when discussing the 2018 Cowboys’ offense. What exactly are we talking about here?

Well, following the team’s abysmal start to the season that saw the Dallas offense ranked at or near the bottom of many statistical categories many were calling for new plays, new schemes, better play-calling.

Instead, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan simply went back and ran a play that has proven successful multiple times in the past. If Sunday’s play looked familiar to fans, it should have. It’s pretty much the same play that has led to Elliott’s biggest pass-game successes in the past.

Here’s Elliott’s longest career play, his electrifying 83-yard catch-and-run touchdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2016.

It’s the exact same play with only a slight wrinkle. In both plays there is a fake hand-off to Elliott. Against Detroit the receiver motioned in front of Dak (near the line of scrimmage) while against Pittsburgh the motion was deeper in the backfield, behind Dak. Otherwise, this is the exact same play.

Here’s Elliott’s second-longest play in the pass game, last year against the San Francisco 49’ers:

Again, fake handoff to Zeke, motion from the wide receiver (deep and behind Dak) before the screen to Zeke that puts him in space and allows him and the athleticism of the Cowboys’ offensive line to shine.

Three plays, 189 yards and three touchdowns. Heck, why doesn’t Linehan call this play all the time and get this juggernaut going?

Well, the truth is the play doesn’t work all the time. Remember the anemic performance against the Carolina Panthers opening weekend? Well, the Cowboys tried to jump-start their offense that week with this exact play. It didn’t go so well.

First, full credit to Bob Sturm and the folks who support him at The Athletic (now) and SporsDay (in the past). He’s been tracking this play all the way back to 2016 and wrote about how it didn’t work on opening weekend.

And finally, the Cowboys ran almost no plays from under center in the second half. In fact, 33 of 35 plays were from shotgun. So, it is very possible that Carolina sniffed out something when the Cowboys put Dak back under center for the fake end around, Zeke screen that Dallas has run a few times in the last few years for Touchdowns.

Which brings us to the real point - play-calling isn’t a stand-alone event. No play is designed to fail. Every time a coach calls a play it’s because they have reason, based upon experience, study and preparation, to believe it will succeed.

But even the best designed plays can fail because there are variables beyond the coach’s control that can result in failure. Sometimes the players simply don’t execute. Sometimes the defense sniffs out a play and sometimes teams become too predictable and opponents can figure out what’s coming.

A good example of this is the Cowboys reliance on bootlegs over the past few years. Early in 2016 the Cowboys’ used bootlegs to tremendous success. Remember Ezekiel Elliott’s first big-time play, a 60-yard touchdown run against the Cincinnati Bengals?

Sturm documented back in 2016 how the Cowboys spent weeks setting that specific play up by succeeding (and eventually failing) with a series of bootleg plays. It was a fascinating read then and informs us today about how play-calling is a never-ending game of cat-and-mouse with opposing defenses.

Both Sturm and Babe Laufenberg have repeatedly noted the Cowboys stubbornly continue to use the bootleg plays that succeeded early in Dak Prescott’s career despite opponent’s knowing the play is coming. Specifically, the team favors the call on the first play of a drive inside its own territory.

Earlier this year it resulted in a disastrous, drive-killing play against Seattle. We saw identical results against Philadelphia last year. Thus, it was quite surprising (to me anyway) the team enjoyed tremendous success employing the same strategy against Detroit by opening the team’s second drive with a bootleg pass that resulted in a huge first quarter gain. Yeah, the bootleg was to the right instead of the left, but I was surprised that:

  1. The Cowboys would again try the same play in such a predictable situation.
  2. The opponent wasn’t just sitting waiting for it as (seemingly) every other opponent has been the last season or so.

Which simply proves, again, that play-calling is an inexact science and things may not always be as they seem.

Many have credited more aggressive or innovative play-calling for the team’s success against the Lions. However, according to Dak Prescott, the Cowboys didn’t do anything new when the offense ran up 414 yards of offense after averaging 277 over the team’s first three games:

Instead, the players executed better, the opponent was sometimes caught in the wrong defense and the play calls might have been sequenced better. There is no magic bullet or easy button. Every NFL staff is looking for ways to unlock a successful play but every move results in a counter-move.

But through the last 36 regular season games offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and the Cowboys’ offense has enjoyed great success using the screen to Elliott after motion in the opposite direction. I imagine they’ll try it again - and defenses will probably be looking for it.