It is a bit of a given that the biggest question facing the Dallas Cowboys is how Kellen Moore will perform as the new offensive coordinator. He is supposed to be bringing in some fresh ideas to tweak things that didn’t go so well under Scott Linehan. One concern that has been expressed, including by me, is just how much change head coach Jason Garrett will allow. Garrett is the architect of the offensive scheme and has been a large influence in building the roster to execute it. He has made statements that indicate that the Cowboys will still build their attack around the running game and star back Ezekiel Elliott. Of course, that latter element is now somewhat in question with a report that Elliott is now considering a holdout to get a contract extension. (However, the source of the report also predicted that Elliott would not attend OTAs, so keep that in mind.) Still, the hoary concept of establishing the run seems quite alive and well in Dallas.
Then, rather presciently, Bob Sturm put up an article at The Athletic that delved into the subject. It focused on the decisions involved in any extension for Elliott, but one aspect jumped out at me. Conveniently, Sturm tweeted these charts out.
This is explained in today's piece, but it is artwork (not commissioned by Gene Jones) by itself. pic.twitter.com/T5mcUI9fTj— Bob Sturm (@SportsSturm) July 15, 2019
The first shows the decline in the percentage of runs in the NFL over time, but that second one is eye-opening, because it covers the Garrett head coaching era. Remember, he called the plays until he was forced by Jerry Jones to pass that duty on, first to Bill Callahan, and then to Linehan. What is clear is that he was more than willing to throw the ball more - a lot more - when the situation warranted.
How dependent the team was on running the ball appears to have been tied to two variables: The presence of a true lead running back, and the quarterback. In 2014, the team saw the greatest year of DeMarco Murray’s career - with Tony Romo having his last year of good health. 2015 saw the injury to Romo lead to the parade of ineffective quarterbacks and the resultant dismal record, without Murray. The team wound up being much closer to the league average in play selection. That poor record led to the fourth overall pick being available, and it got them Elliott. We often forget that his role was to support Romo, but injury intervened again. Fortunately, the team had the incredible stroke of luck in getting Dak Prescott as well that draft. Prescott is the target of many slings and arrows, but there is no way to argue that he did not prove immediately that he was able to come in and be a successful starter in the NFL. But note that Elliott allowed them to run the ball at nearly the same rate as they did in 2014.
2017 was the year of Elliott’s still-controversial suspension, and also saw the advent of the offensive line injuries that got even worse in 2018 with the illness of Travis Frederick. But still, there was a clear trend back to a run/pass split that was again very near the league average.
If I have a trademark tendency, it is trying to dig meaning out of data sets like this. And this is what this one says to me: Garrett is much more flexible in how the team calls offensive plays than we may think. He shows evidence of adjusting things to fit the personnel he has.
That includes all factors, the quarterback, running back, offensive line, and receiving corps. This year, all indications point to all those components being as good as we can remember, with the possible exception of Prescott when compared to Romo. But there are also many reports of just how many strides Prescott has made in his passing. If those are indeed accurate, the Cowboys are fielding the best overall offensive group in recent memory.
Moore is going to bear the brunt of properly utilizing his tools. However, that chart shows that we might not need to be so concerned about how much support he will get from Garrett if, for instance, he wants to use more first down passes, and employ his runs out of more spread out formations. Based on the remarks of one observer, the latter looks to definitely be in the plans.
Though safety Kavon Frazier has been out of OTAs, he says what he has seen of new #Cowboys OC Kellen Moore's concepts is that things are a lot more spreadout.— Mark Lane (@therealmarklane) July 14, 2019
We are going to have to wait for camp to see just how many of the OTA trends, including more deep throws as well, will actually carry through. But this team does not have any real history of showing things in practices just to fool people. They follow the principle of practicing what they plan to use in games.
Preseason games will also give us some idea of how Moore will call plays. We won’t see much of Prescott, of course, but those games are also practice for the OC. Even with Cooper Rush and Mike White taking snaps, he is likely going to use those games to establish some of his rhythms and plans.
What I think we will see will be that much anticipated unpredictability and movement to make both phases of the offense work, and it will be with the support of the head coach. Garrett is coaching for his job this year. Garrett is far less likely than Linehan was to retreat to some comfort zone with inadequate consideration of whether or not it is working. The head coach’s history shows that his comfort zone may be much wider and more adaptable than we sometimes assume.
Perhaps those concerns about his conservatism are more recency bias than anything. And even that is more centered around a couple of years than a consistent trend.
There is an excellent chance that Moore will put his foot on the accelerator, without his head coach stomping on the brake.