Perhaps the biggest question mark hanging over the Cowboys right now is about new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. He began his coaching career last season as the quarterbacks coach after a six-year career in the NFL, of which five seasons saw him playing for outgoing coordinator Scott Linehan.
But any concerns about Moore being a Linehan clone seem to have been dispelled, at least for now. The club re-signed Tavon Austin while adding Randall Cobb, Mike Weber, and Tony Pollard, and word around the team has been that Moore is going to implement some changes to the offense. In two previous pieces, we profiled the Air Coryell offense that head coach Jason Garrett prefers and how the offensive identity of the Cowboys has changed under Garrett.
While the underlying philosophies of the Air Coryell will remain, it seems likely that Moore’s offense will differ from Linehan’s. That is because Moore comes from a background that was arguably Linehan’s biggest weakness: situational playcalling. Moore has had a coach’s mindset for a while, his father was long-time successful coach on the high-school level. And it’s likely that he soaked up a lot of knowledge from the coaches he played for in college, most notably Chris Petersen and Bryan Harsin. Luckily for Moore, those two just happen to have a history of building dominant offenses.
Petersen was the Boise State head coach for eight seasons, having previously been their offensive coordinator for five seasons. As head coach, Petersen went 92-12 and made the small school into a perennial football powerhouse. Petersen left for the Washington Huskies and has gone 47-21 through five seasons, putting up ten or more wins the last three years and making the College Football Playoff in 2016. Harsin was the offensive coordinator under Petersen at Boise State. He became the head coach at Arkansas State and put up a 7-5 record before leaving to succeed Petersen at Boise State. He has kept the dynasty alive in Boise, going 52-15 in five seasons.
The secret to both of these coaches’ success has been their offensive consistency. And that is almost surely going to be what Moore tries to recreate in Dallas. So what is it that the Boise boys do so well on offense? How does their scheme work? The simple answer is that they have no real scheme. For a thorough analysis of the offense Petersen and Harsin run, check out this brilliant work from Mike Kuchar, a high school defensive coordinator who wrote it up after spending time with Virginia Tech coaches as they scouted the Broncos offense back in 2010, when Moore was the quarterback. Kuchar had this to say:
Boise State’s linebacker coach, Jeff Choate, once told me at coaching clinic two years back, “We run plays, we don’t have an offense. It makes it difficult to defend.”
Boise specializes in getting defenses out of position to make plays by utilizing the three major essentials in offensive football: numbers, leverage and grass.
In short, Boise State employs a wide variety of play concepts and throws them all at the defense in a quick fashion. They’ll run five different formations on five straight plays and use pre-snap motion on all five of them to read the defense and get them out of position. And the cherry on top is that they usually do this in a no-huddle offense, or at the very least they snap the ball very quickly after coming out of the huddle. The entire point is to overwhelm the defensive players with so many moving parts stimulating their senses that it becomes a blur for them. Then, when the defense is overstimulated, the offense flips the script on them.
Kuchar explains this with diagrams that show how the Broncos used 22 personnel to bait the defense. They would line up in a pro wing formation, with tight ends on either side and a fullback in front of the running back. Then the fullback would shift out to be next to one tight end, while the other tight end would move to the fullback position. Now overloaded to one side, Boise State ran a basic power run with pulling guards, but all the shifting confused defensive assignments. After running this enough times to get the defense to shift their front to adjust, Boise State would run the same kind of motion but instead run a basic zone run to the weak side, taking advantage of the defense shifting to the strong side.
Boise State does similar things in the passing game by lining up in spread concepts and using various types of motion, often motioning their running back out of the backfield and out wide. The goal here is to frequently stretch safeties to either open up seams downfield or allow for quick slants or comeback routes to receivers. The idea of lining up running backs out wide is something Cowboys fans have been calling for, as Ezekiel Elliott has been woefully underutilized in that aspect, and now Tony Pollard offers more potential in that context as well.
This modus operandi of Petersen and Harsin that Kuchar notes seems to line up with what Moore once told Jon Gruden on ESPN when he was in the NFL draft (a sentence which makes no sense in today’s NFL) about doing their best to confuse defenses by showing them everything except what they actually end up doing.
Another thing that Moore should be doing when it comes to determining his offensive scheme is intensely studying every second of tape on Mississippi State’s offenses from 2012 to 2015. That is when Dak Prescott played there, and he played so well that he earned two first-place votes in the Heisman voting his junior year. At Mississippi State, then head coach and offensive playcaller Dan Mullen ran a spread option offense that focused on the running game. It’s exactly what it sounds like: spread concepts that look to set up the running game, featuring the quarterback as a frequent possible runner.
Obviously, this worked well for Prescott, and one of the bigger qualms about Linehan has been his low usage of Dak as a runner. Moore has a close relationship with the quarterback by now, so he can pick Dak’s brain on what he liked most from Mullen’s playbook, but Moore would also be wise to use a lot more concepts from that Mississippi State team, especially as more and more college concepts find their way into the NFL.
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.
For what it’s worth, the Cowboys were tenth in time of possession and 24th in pace, averaging 28.73 seconds per play.
So yes, it is possible for Dallas to run a faster-paced offense like Boise State and Mississippi State do and overwhelm the defense with so many different bells and whistles at such a high rate. It might mean a dip in yards per attempt, but if it means trading that for an increase in points per game (the Rams, Patriots and Ravens all had significantly higher points per game averages in 2018 than Dallas) then it should be a worthy trade off.
Most importantly, Dallas has the talent to make this kind of speculative offense work. As Kuchar noted, the Broncos don’t have a scheme, they just do what works. The Cowboys have the personnel to run nearly every concept in the book at this point. Zeke allows for a methodical, downhill running game while Dak has dual-threat ability. Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and Cobb have the versatility to line up at any of the three wide receiver spots, and Austin and Pollard create all kinds of matchup problems in the right situation.
We won’t really know what Moore will bring to this offense until the first regular season game kicks off against the Giants. However, Moore has the intellectual background from his days at Boise State, as well as the talent on the roster, to create a fast, efficient, high-powered offense that both incorporates the existing philosophies of Garrett’s Cowboys offenses and new concepts from college and other teams around the league. Moore seemingly said just as much over the weekend, too. It’ll be interesting to see how all of this translates to the field for the 30 year old first-time coordinator.
Kellen Moore on his offensive approach: "Probably multiple. I think the beauty of our current roster is we have a lot of versatility. ... Hopefully we can be multiple and present things in different ways, and at the end of the day, still have our foundation and our philosophy."— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) May 11, 2019