Breaking news: the Cowboys have a very good offense. It may not have felt like it during the team’s three-game losing streak, but Dallas ranks first in the league in total yards per game, third passing yards, fourth in rushing yards, and sixth in points per game. Dak Prescott is on pace for the greatest year of his young career and Ezekiel Elliott is making the most of his opportunities. They’ve scored 31 or more points in four of their seven games - coincidentally all of those games were wins - which is something they haven’t done since 2016, and the year is only halfway over.
There’s a lot of reasons for this offensive resurgence, including the return of Travis Frederick, bolstering the wide receiver corps with Randall Cobb, Dak’s improved mechanics, and other factors. But the one getting the most credit, and rightfully so, is offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. Without making any dramatic overhaul of the scheme or playbook, Moore has added wrinkles here and there to create a dynamic offense that puts everyone in a position to succeed.
It’s worked wonders in the young coordinator’s first year. Not only are they doing incredibly well in yardage totals, but the Cowboys offense is highly efficient. They lead the league in total offensive DVOA with a +28% score, and have been at the top for several weeks. Only two other teams, the Chiefs and Seahawks, boast a more efficient passing attack and the only team with a more efficient running game is the Ravens, who have heavily incorporated analytics into the way they run the ball this year.
Breaking this down a bit more, Dallas has been getting the most out of each drive. They’re second in the NFL in yards per drive, averaging 41.53 yards per offensive possession. Their 2.64 points scored per drive is third behind the Chiefs and Ravens, and they are running the fourth most plays per drive, indicating that the Cowboys are orchestrating long drives that end in points. What makes this more impressive is that the Cowboys rank 25th in average starting field position, meaning that they’ve overcome poor field position to score their points.
Finally, this offense is a close second in drive success rate which “measures the percentage of down series that result in a first down or touchdown,” per Football Outsiders. Dallas has an impressive 77.8% drive success rate, surpassed only by the Ravens, once again.
So how has Moore done all this? It helps that he’s got great players everywhere on the field, and his use of pre-snap motion to confuse defenses has contributed greatly as well. But an overlooked aspect is the pace of play that Moore has been conducting this high-flying offense with. Back in May when we broke down things we could expect to see from Moore’s offense, improved pace of play was one factor:
One thing that both the Boise State/Washington and Mississippi State offenses have in common is their fast pace. We’re not talking Chip Kelly levels of pace, but still a pretty quick rate at which these offenses get set and snap the ball. Currently, the Cowboys use a slower pace that ideally allows them to be more methodical and allow the defense more time to rest during offensive possessions. But it’s possible to run plays at a fast pace while still holding onto the ball for long amounts of time.
The Rams are one of the most innovative teams in the NFL right now, and they ranked eighth in time of possession for the 2018 season. Yet, they had the third fastest pace with 26.83 seconds per play, according to Football Outsiders. Similarly, Baltimore and New England were the only two teams to average 32 minutes or more in time of possession last year, and yet the Ravens were fourth in pace with 26.87 seconds per play while the Patriots were sixth with 27.01 seconds per play.
And as it turns out, that was correct. The Cowboys currently rank sixth in total seconds per play with 26.45 seconds. But the splits are what’s even more interesting. In the first half of games, Dallas is the third fastest offense, operating with 25.59 seconds per play. The only two teams ahead of them are the Rams and the Cardinals, who brought the Air Raid offense to the NFL with head coach Kliff Kingsbury.
Interestingly enough, though, Dallas drops all the way to 13th in second half pace of play, running a play every 27.36 seconds (it’s worth noting that the Cowboys have led at halftime in four of their seven games). Additionally, when the Cowboys are playing with a touchdown or more lead at any time in the game, they slow the pace down to 30.21 seconds per play, 18th in the NFL. This lines up with an old Bill Parcells philosophy that Jason Garrett has long held himself: get an early lead and then bleed the clock out.
When the Cowboys aren’t enjoying at least a touchdown lead, though, Moore dials up the pace. When the score is within six points either way, Moore’s offense runs a play every 26.67 seconds, fifth fastest in the league, and when they’re trailing by a touchdown or more the offense goes to 21.96 seconds per play, fourth fastest.
From this, it’s pretty easy to see Moore’s approach: roll out all the bells and whistles of his offense and do it at a high pace to mentally overwhelm defenses, and in theory that gives the Cowboys the lead early on. Once it’s a fairly comfortable lead, Moore slows things down and chews the clock, putting more pressure on the other team. And as we can see from the earlier stats on offensive drives, Moore’s offense is adept at scoring even on those longer, more methodical possessions. It seems he’s created a very well oiled machine for the Cowboys.