The Dallas Cowboys are taking quite a plunge with new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. He only has one year of experience as a coach, period. It is putting a lot of pressure on him and his head coach, Jason Garrett, who is in a contract year. Most of the focus on what we may or may not expect from Moore has been on the passing game and Dak Prescott. Even the excellent Bob Sturm, in his look at what went wrong in the red zone in 2018 at The Athletic, spent a lot more time talking about Dak Prescott and the passing game than the running attack.
But that ignores half of the job for Moore. He isn’t just being called on to get more out of his quarterback. He also has to make better use of arguably the best player on the team, Ezekiel Elliott. There has been some discussion of how Moore needs to get away from letting the defenses stack the box by being far less predictable with his personnel packages and formations, but it needs to be given some more consideration.
Whether analytics says it is smart or not, the Cowboys are almost certainly still going to rely heavily on the run game. That may involve having a balance of play selection on first down, or using more options or audibles to better exploit what the defense is showing. They will certainly still feed Zeke when they have a lead, especially late in the game when controlling the clock works greatly to their advantage.
That is an aspect of the game where Moore’s hoped-for innovation and creativity can pay dividends. Last season, Dallas, or more specifically Scott Linehan, kept lining up in obvious run formations and expecting to beat the opponent at the point of attack. That worked brilliantly in 2016, when the Cowboys had a truly elite offensive line. But in 2017 and especially 2018, that did not pay off well at all, as injury and illness led to changes in the starters and backups having to fill in up front. The failure to adjust and adapt to overcome those problems was a key part in the decision to replace Linehan and give Moore the keys to the offense.
The hope is that Moore will use motion and formations to spread the defense out and depopulate the box. That gives the offensive linemen a better chance to open up the holes for Elliott. It might be tempting to go back to the old way of doing things with the expected return of Travis Frederick and the anticipated improvement of Connor Williams (or the possibility of Connor McGovern winning the starting LG job), but that would not be wise. Motion and formations are supposed to be tools Moore can use more effectively than his predecessor. They should not be left in the toolbox.
Additionally, Elliott is simply superb when he can get the ball in space. Linehan used him as a receiver, but mostly on screens and as a safety valve. Moore could do so much more with plays that get Elliott open past the line of scrimmage and moving forward, where he can use his impressive combination of power and speed to get yards after the catch. That’s not to say the screen should be thrown out of the playbook, because we have seen what Elliott can do when things are set up properly. But more needs to be added to the mix with him. He is a dominant player when he is not outnumbered at the line of scrimmage. It just makes sense to have more plays where he is only trying to get past one defender, especially if it is a defensive back when he has a size advantage. And don’t forget that hurdling skill. He is a big back, listed at 225, and this year he looks to be in very good shape. A lot of corners and safeties are not going to be eager to go one-on-one with him when he has is headed downhill in their direction.
The team has a new wrinkle to add this year in Tony Pollard, and that gives them some intriguing possibilities that can also help Elliott. Pollard is not just a change of pace back, like the team tried to use Tavon Austin last season. Pollard is also a legitimate between the tackles runner. One thing Moore has hopefully (and probably) considered is putting both Elliott and Pollard in the backfield to start the play, and then motioning either out to be a receiver. The play can then be either a pass or a run, based on how the defense reacts to the shift. And sometimes, one can lead block, perhaps on a quick count. It is one more way to inject that needed unpredictability. While we are playing OC, how about an option run, with one of the backs out front and the other trailing Prescott who can keep or pitch the ball as the play develops.
This is just scratching the surface of what Moore can do with the running game. Sturm put this out to show just how unconventional playcalling can throw the defense for a loop in trying to stop the run.
That is a thing of beauty - except for the befuddled defense.
A lot has been made of how Moore is key to Prescott’s continued development. But he has an important bit of help in new QB coach Jon Kitna, who is in position to do so much to help Prescott with his footwork and reads. Elliott stands to benefit just as much from Moore’s direct contributions as Prescott. Perhaps even more. (It’s hard not to sound like I’m making a pun there.)
There are understandable voices of caution concerning an inexperienced OC. But one thing everyone seems to agree on is that Kellen Moore has an element of brilliance in his concept for the game. And now he has a roster that has talent and experience, although the depth at wide receiver still has to prove itself. There is also the question of just what Jason Witten still brings to the table, and how he will be used. But there are no questions about Elliott’s abilities, and the offensive line picture offers a lot of hope. Moore can do a lot to improve the effectiveness of the passing game, but he can also do so much to restore the dominance of the Dallas ground attack.