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Why Cowboys offense can be the 2018 version of the 2017 Rams offense

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The 2017 Rams led the league in scoring, and there are some interesting parallels to the 2018 Cowboys offense.

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NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Every year for the last four years, filled with hope for the new season, I published an offseason/preseason article wondering whether the Cowboys were poised to score 30+ points that year. Alas, they didn’t, even if they came close twice.

What all those articles had in common was a vaguely defined hope that the firepower assembled on offense would be enough to push the Cowboys over 30 points per game (or 480 total points), a feat achieved by only 18 teams since realignment in 2002. But the articles were a little light on the specifics of how to achieve that goal. So instead of the fifth rehash of the same post, I’m taking a different angle today.

Last year, not a single team managed to average 30+ points per game, though the Rams came closest with 29.9 points per game (478 total points). And looking at some key stats for the 2017 Rams, I couldn’t help but marvel at the similarities between that team and what we expect the 2018 Cowboys offense to be.

Low-volume passing game

In a day and age where Fantasy Football has collectively muddled our football minds, people still talk about high-volume passers like it’s a good thing. But the Rams beg to differ.

Led by a young QB in Jared Goff, the Rams weren’t able to crack the 4,000-yard passing mark, coming in at 3,831 yards for the 2017 season. Similarly, in a season where a lot of things went well for the Cowboys, the passing game led by rookie QB Dak Prescott managed “just” 3,631 yards.

And the similarities don’t end there. Look at how closely Goff’s 2018 season mirrors Prescott’s 2016 season, two highly-efficient, low-volume passing seasons (all stats per Pro-Football-Reference, except where otherwise stated):

Player QBrec Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD Int Y/A AY/A Rate
Dak Prescott (2016) 13-3 311 459 67.8 3667 23 4 8.0 8.6 104.9
Jared Goff (2017) 11-4 296 477 62.1 3804 28 7 8.0 8.5 100.5

No coincidence that both players made the Pro Bowl in those seasons even if they were ranked 10th (Goff) and 19th (Prescott) in passing yards respectively.

Side note about a pet peeve of mine: while the following Tweet was written about major league baseball, it’s just as true about NFL football.

No 1,000+ yard receiver

The 2017 Rams didn’t have a single 1,000+ yard receiver. Not many people expect the Cowboys to have a 1,000+ receiver this year either. Here are the top seven players by receiving yards for the Rams last year:

Player POS G GS Tgt Rec Yds TD
Cooper Kupp WR 15 6 94 62 869 5
Todd Gurley RB 15 15 87 64 788 6
Robert Woods WR 12 11 85 56 781 5
Sammy Watkins WR 15 14 70 39 593 8
Tyler Higbee TE 16 16 45 25 295 1
Gerald Everett TE 16 2 32 16 244 2
Josh Reynolds WR 16 1 24 11 104 1

Of note, Sammy Watkins is the only Rams player that ever had a 1,000+ yard receiving season, back in 2015. For what it’s worth, the Cowboys also have only one such receiver, Allen Hurns, who eclipsed that mark (also in 2015).

Looks like spreading the ball around worked for the 2017 Rams, and that’s just what the Cowboys are looking to do to a potentially similar group of wide receivers - once they figure out who makes the roster.

That third-round wide receiver though ...

The Rams’ receiving corps was led by third-round rookie WR Cooper Kupp, who started in just six games, but still put up impressive numbers, perhaps partly because defenses were focusing on other wide receivers more.

The Cowboys also have a promising third-round rookie in Michael Gallup, and Gallup getting six starts like Kupp isn’t that big of a reach. Whether he’ll end up with a similar stat line to Kupp is another question, but it’s not like it hasn’t been done before.

A boatload of passes thrown at the RB

Top 10 pick RB Todd Gurley led the Rams in rushing (1,305 yards) and also had the second-most receiving yards (Targets: 84, Receptions: 67, Yards: 788) on the team.

In Dallas, top 10 pick RB Ezekiel Elliott is expected to put up a ton of rushing yards, but more importantly is also expected to get significantly more targets in the passing game than he did in his 15-game rookie season (Targets: 37, Receptions: 34, Yards: 363). Throw two more passes to Elliott per game and you’re doubling his receiving stats, which lands you in Gurley territory with 68 receptions and 726 yards.

In fact, Elliott was well on his way there in his suspension-shortened 2018 season. He was targeted 38 times in 10 games, and if the Cowboys keep that pace over a 16-game season, he’d end up with 61 targets. Not quite in Gurley’s range, but getting there.

Yeah, but what about the tight ends?

The Cowboys have a bunch of no-name tight ends on their roster, a roster that featured future HOFer Jason Witten for 15 seasons - of course people are going to be anxious about the position.

The 2017 Rams had three tight ends combine for 49 receptions, led by fourth-round pick Tyler Higbee, followed by some other guys I’ve never heard about. That total doesn’t feel like it’s out of reach for the young Cowboys TE corps, which coincidentally also features a fourth-round TE in Dalton Schultz.

A strong O-line

The Rams haven’t recently been a place where you would have gone looking for a strong O-line, but that changed last year, as Pro Football Focus explains:

A unit that went from being a liability to becoming the strength of the team, the Rams’ offensive line had a surprisingly solid season. Veteran guard Rodger Saffold had his best season to date, while right guard Jamon Brown was able to bounce back following a tough first month when he struggled against Washington and San Francisco. In addition, free agent acquisitions John Sullivan and Andrew Whitworth were still able to perform at a high level at the ages of 32 and 36, respectively. However, Whitworth has finally showed signs of a slight decline as he surrendered six sacks in 2017, the most he has allowed in a single season since his rookie campaign in 2006. Overall, the line gave a big help to our Comeback Player of the Year Todd Gurley as Rams running backs averaged 1.90 yards before contact, the fifth-most in the NFL.

PFF Ranks the 2017 Rams as the sixth-best O-line, just two spots below the Cowboys, who finished fourth overall for 2017.

Also: Tavon Austin!

The 2017 Rams led the league in scoring, and there are quite a few interesting parallels to the 2018 Cowboys offense. And while I understand that there are a lot more factors going into an offensive performance than just some statistical and anecdotal similarities,

[We pause here for to allow the obligatory message board comments like “But Jason Garrett is no Sean McVay, SUKKAAZZZ!”, “Listen up, doofus: Linehan doesn’t know how to use running backs”, “Yeah, but what about THE DEFENSE, dude?”, etc.]

if everything comes together for the Cowboys, could they one-up the 2017 Rams by two points scored to reach 30.0 points per game in 2018?

The Cowboys have publicly said they want to model their offense more on the RPO elements used by the Panthers and Chiefs.

“I think it just means if you watch a little bit of maybe what the Panthers are doing or what the Chiefs did, just the RPOs, the run-pass options, just allowing me to use my feet if necessary more,” Prescott said. “Allow me to go out there and be more comfortable in everything I’m doing.”

The RPOs were on full display in Philadelphia’s offense in Sunday’s Super Bowl win over the Patriots. They were already a large part of Dallas’ offense with Prescott, but more should be expected in 2018.

Interestingly, the Rams ranked No. 2 overall in play-action usage, with 29% play-action usage (as a percentage of dropbacks), per Football Outsiders, way ahead of the Cowboys at No. 19 and 22%. More of that for the Cowboys?

Sure, if it leads to the playoffs, why not?