While the Cowboys sit at 7-8 and face long odds of making the playoffs, not many fans are in the mood to hear about how the team is actually good in some respects. Still, the offense in particular has been really good overall. While fans are right to call for a new head coach, the brakes ought to be pumped when it comes to offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, and here’s why.
For quite a while there was frequent complaining about Scott Linehan’s offense, and rightfully so. Linehan had been initially brought in to take over Jason Garrett’s version of the Air Coryell offense and balance things out between the run and pass game to take pressure off of Tony Romo. He did that very well, to his credit, but when Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott became the stars of the offense, Linehan failed to adapt the scheme to his personnel. Prescott was asked to be like Romo despite having almost opposite play styles, and Elliott was asked to be a ground-and-pound back despite his potential to be more of a Le’Veon Bell/Todd Gurley type of threat.
Eventually, this stale and stubborn scheme caught up to Dallas and they switched out Linehan for Moore, who came into a most unenviable position: handed the keys to the offense in only his second year as a coach and being tasked with completely reviving the offense without any drastic scheme changes in order to save Garrett’s job. That’s as close to an impossible task as you’ll get in the NFL.
Yet, Moore has mostly lived up to the challenge, with his biggest failure being the most crucial point of saving Garrett’s job. The Cowboys offense has looked significantly different despite still operating out of mostly the same set of plays they ran under Linehan. Pre-snap motion has become a staple of the offense in an effort to confuse defenses without really changing the plays, and Moore has shown flashes of brilliance when he uses heavy play-action and an overall increase of rub routes.
The numbers are hard to argue with. With only one week left to go in the regular season, the Cowboys rank first in total yards, second in passing yards, eighth in rushing yards, and eighth in points per game. And any worries about these numbers being inflated by weak opponents or garbage time production are erased when you look at their DVOA figures, which account for those factors. Dallas ranks second in total offensive DVOA, fifth in passing DVOA, and fourth in rushing DVOA.
Individual players have had great years as well. Prescott is well over 4,000 passing yards, Elliott is well over 1,000 rushing yards, and both Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup are over 1,000 receiving yards. Prescott has had a career best season as well. His 4,599 yards are second in the league and is tied for fifth most passing touchdowns. Moore has also unlocked Prescott’s deep ball, and as a result he’s fourth in yards per attempt.
More advanced metrics also sing Prescott’s praises. Only six other passers have thrown less off-target passes per attempt, and similarly only six other quarterbacks have a higher on-target percentage than Dak. Prescott’s numbers are even more impressive when you take into account that he’s had more dropped passes than anyone else. Dak also ranks fourth in QBR, fourth in EPA, and third in completion percentage above expectation among full-time starting quarterbacks.
Zeke has had another good year as well, with 1,235 rushing yards although it does appear that he will fail to win the rushing title for the first time in a season in which he’s played all year. However, Elliott’s overall value has skyrocketed under Moore. Not only has he reached double-digit rushing touchdowns for the first time since his rookie year, Elliott also leads the league in overall value, or DYAR, and is sixth in value per play, or DVOA. And while he hasn’t been utilized nearly enough, rookie Tony Pollard is just five yards away from hitting 400 on the year, and ranks fifth among rookie running backs despite being the 11th running back selected in the draft.
Another reason why Moore should be retained next year is because we can’t really be sure what his ceiling is. While only those inside the team building know the truth, it’s been largely speculated that Garrett has been heavily involved in some of the game planning. After all, there’s a pretty big disconnect between Garrett’s stance on analytics and Moore’s:
Kellen Moore's response when asked about analytics by the media today: "Analytics? Yeah, I like it. I'm 31, so..."— Bobby Belt (@BobbyBeltTX) September 12, 2019
Perhaps this explains why the Cowboys have held fast to their outdated philosophy of running the ball on first down so frequently, as well as the confusing back-and-forth usage of play-action. By all accounts, it seems like one can infer that Moore’s desire would be to use more analytics-driven approaches to play-calling, and if Dallas can bring in a head coach who’s more open to that, then Moore could potentially take this offense to even new heights.
As it stands, Moore has already significantly elevated this group. He’s freshened up a stale offensive scheme with some clever window dressing and the numbers tell the story. While there’s a legitimate argument to be made for a new head coach bringing in the coaches they want, there’s also something to be said for knowing when you’ve got a great coach already.
If a new head coach comes in, looks at all the great things Moore has done for this offense, and says “I don’t want that.”, then they better be the second coming of Tom Landry or else they’re showing the door to a guy who’s built a top five offense in his first year on the job. The smart thing to do, regardless of who the Cowboys head coach is next year, is to retain Moore and free him up to keep this offense performing at a high level.