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Cowboys hot topic: Looking at the offensive identity

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We all know Dallas is a run-first team. We may all be wrong.

Dallas Cowboys v New York Giants
Which is really option one for Kellen Moore?
Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

It is a given. The Dallas Cowboys are a run-first team. Despite the extensive analytics argument that passing is almost always a more productive call on offense, the Cowboys are built around the former fourth-overall draft pick Ezekiel Elliott. So he is basically the first option when the team is not forced into an obvious passing situation, like third and long.

But, if that is true, how do you explain the first four offensive plays the Cowboys ran against the New York Giants on Monday night? (Play descriptions taken from the NFL GSIS database.)

  1. (Ball at Dallas 12 yard line.) Pass intended for Michael Gallup, intercepted by Antoine Bethea.
  2. (Ball at Dallas 25) Pass short left to Michael Gallup for 18 yards.
  3. (Ball at Dallas 43) Pass short left to Jason Witten for 8 yards.
  4. (Ball at Giants 49) Pass short left to Jason Witten for 12 yards.

That doesn’t compute. They came out and threw from deep in their own end of the field. Then, after that went terribly wrong, they came right back out and threw three more times to get into New York’s end of the field. All of the prevailing assumptions about the team being run first would lead you to believe that they would have handed it off to Elliot from the 12, and then caution would dictate that they just about had to go to him after the turnover.

Once they had moved the ball on the second possession, they then went to the ground game, handing it off to Elliott on four consecutive plays to get into the red zone. Things would stall from there, with a touchdown throw to Randall Cobb being nullified by penalty, and Tony Pollard dropping a possible touchdown pass a couple of plays later, forcing the Cowboys to settle for a field goal.

How can you fit that into the running identity of the team accepted by the conventional wisdom? Logic and perception would have reversed things, with the safer handoffs coming on the near side of midfield before taking some shots through the air once into the opponent’s territory. But up until things stalled, the pass-then-run approach was working beautifully.

It was evident that Dak Prescott changed some plays once he read the defense, but the fact that Kellen Moore gives him the freedom to do that in situations like that still flies in the face of the whole run-first concept.

Please understand that this is in no way a complaint. Indeed, it is heartening for those of us (raises hand) that buy into the analytics arguments in favor of passing the ball if you want to move and score. This is just trying to figure out how that whole identity really works.

Well, maybe the problem is more one of semantics than anything else. This may really be what is going on:

The Cowboys are built around the running game to force the defense to account for that threat. That allows them to use the pass more effectively on early downs. Moore does not utilize a run-first approach. He uses one that always seeks to use whatever most effectively attacks the alignment his quarterback sees, with Prescott having the final decision to change the play in order to get just that. A side benefit is that it makes them much harder to predict. In other words, they are a “whatever works best” offense.

Turnovers, drops, and penalties led to another dreaded slow start on the road, but that just obscures what seems to be going on between Moore and Prescott. While that combination, plus the influence of “let ‘er rip, but get it right” Jon Kitna, is primarily used to view the passing game, Moore is proving to be equally adept at using his star runner. Elliott had 139 yards rushing Monday, and has eclipsed 100 yards for the past three games, with the total increasing in each. Elliott also commented on how easy the yards were to get, with first contact coming well beyond the line of scrimmage on the majority of his 23 carries. The evidence mounts that Moore is just as good at opening things up for his running backs as he is for his quarterback and receivers.

It all starts with Elliott, who is unquestionably one of the top runners in the game. But the other components of the offense mesh with him so well. The line had another very good game, illustrated not only by the success on the ground, but by Prescott not being sacked and only getting hit five times. Meanwhile, the receiving corps is the best we have seen in years, especially Amari Cooper, who keeps making key plays and scoring touchdowns, and an emerging Gallup, who had the spectacular, acrobatic touchdown catch in the fourth quarter.

But the driver for it all is Prescott. He is having his best year as a passer, and is at or near the top in every meaningful statistical category (except interceptions, which may be up due to Kitna’s approach cited above). More importantly, he is making a lot of excellent decisions before the snap, as evidenced by the frequent audibles he made. He also is showing very good decision-making after the snap in both his targets and his ability to evade the rush. A marked decrease in the time to throw in the pocket is also very important.

Then there is the effectiveness of play-action passes. That conventional wisdom holds that play-action works whether a team has a good rushing attack or not, because the defense has to react to the threat of a run no matter how good or bad the back is. But it just seems hard to accept that the defenders in the back seven are going to bite quite as hard when the back is averaging only three yards a carry or less compared to when a guy like Elliott who can eat yards in chunks is in the backfield. TThe quality of the ground game has to influence reactions.

Taking all this together, the idea of synergy comes forward. Having a really great running back lining up with a really good quarterback leads to both elements of the offense being better. The Cowboys are fortunate to have both. The result this season, as Bob Sturm points out in his weekly Decoding Kellen Moore piece, is a lot of games with over 400 yards and 30 points this season.

All this comes back to that earlier comment about semantics. Being built around a stud running back does not necessarily mean that an offense is “run first”, especially with an offensive coordinator who truly understands how the parts of his offense can and should work together, and when your starting running back and quarterback are both among the best in the league, and operating with a surrounding cast of very good talent. Dallas is blessed to have all that.

They don’t run first. They run when it makes sense and pass when it doesn’t. Most of the time, at least. When they get it all right, and get the all important execution down, they have one of the most entertaining and potent offenses in the league.