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Kellen Moore can fix the Cowboys offense - if Jason Garrett lets him

This may be the real determining factor in Dallas for 2019.

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NFL: Dallas Cowboys-Minicamp Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Just about all who come here to read about the Dallas Cowboys are aware of the frustration that grew out of the predictable, conservative play-calling that hampered the team in 2018, and played a large part in the dismissal of Scott Linehan. What you may not be aware of is just where that conservatism caused the most problems. Jeff Cavanaugh of 105.3 The Fan did some research, and shared it with us.

It’s worth the watch, but in case you are in tl;dr (or watch, in this case) mode or just miss the main points, allow me to summarize. Using the Warren Sharp 2019 NFL preview (gotta give credit to all who deserve it), Cavanaugh found that Dallas was really not all that predictable with their first down play calls in the first half. They had a nice mix, leading to better drives and more points. But once they got to the third quarter, especially with a lead, they went all Vince Lombardi, taking the ball out of the hands of Dak Prescott and handing it off at well above the league average rate to Ezekiel Elliott on first down. Other teams, not being either oblivious or stupid, adjusted their defense. And so the Cowboys, who had a nice plus differential in first halves, was usually outscored in the second - and it wasn’t close.

There is one of the main challenges for Kellen Moore in replacing Linehan. Being more unpredictable is something that is clearly expected of him. But Cavanaugh also touches on another factor that will play heavily in this. This is Jason Garrett’s team and his offense. How much freedom and support he gives to Moore will set the limits.

That leads us to the question, just what can we expect? There is no way to be sure, because we simply do not know exactly how it went so badly with Linehan. We have seen some reports that there was a growing friction between Garrett and his OC last year. That leads to some hope for Moore. Still, we have to see what happens when the games are for real.

To try and get some idea of how things might go, there appear to be three factors to consider.

How much latitude did Linehan have, and will that change with Moore?

Based on those previously mentioned reports, the answer to the first half of that was “a lot.” Linehan’s own leadership and management style was apparently founded on “My way or the highway.” He just did not want input from his subordinates. Garrett, of course, could have intervened, but short of taking the play calls back for himself, he could only tell Linehan what he wanted or fire him midseason. The latter was not done, and Linehan remained resistant to changing until the bitter end.

Garrett himself gives the impression his style is more focused on putting people in place and letting them do their jobs. That is great when you are on the same page, but can lead to dysfunction when not. It certainly did for the Cowboys.

While it didn’t work out last season, it would probably be for the best if Garrett treats Moore much the same way. The team needs change. Based on what we saw in the OTAs, Moore is implementing it, especially with the increased emphasis on deeper throws. That does not guarantee that he will be more balanced on first downs, or (as many hope) leaning more to the pass. However, everything about Moore’s background would lead you to think so, as long as he has the freedom to do so.

Moore will not be willing to go against Garret the way Linehan apparently did, however. He is too new. Linehan firmly believed he could figure it out, and he had some very good years in the past, including the rookie season for Prescott and Elliott. But he was also far too dependent on having a dominant offensive line to make his offense work. Now, Moore should see a line that is much more reminiscent of that award winning bunch from 2016, and that should just make implementing things easier - as long as Garrett is willing to go that route.

So what is Garrett’s offensive philosophy?

He speaks frequently about building things around the run, which currently means giving the ball to Ezekiel Elliott a lot. That is a more pessimistic trend in light of the problems already cited.

But as an offensive coordinator and play-caller, Garrett was never afraid to open it up. It is a dichotomy that makes it hard to figure out exactly where things may be headed. Facing a contract year, will he be willing to open things up to unleash the impressive array of talent this offense now has, or will he hunker down and want to play to not lose rather than trying to score? That was an evident preference in 2018, but again, we aren’t exactly sure whose call that was.

Garrett is criticized for many things, but no one can realistically say that he is not a very smart man. Hopefully, he can use that intelligence to study the things Cavanaugh gleaned and take the indicated path.

Something else to mention is that Moore seems to be cut from a very similar cloth. One thing that everyone praises about him is his grasp of the game and his overall intelligence. He also seems to have a very similar leadership style as his head coach, and rather different from Linehan’s more authoritarian approach. Both should work to the team’s advantage.

Garrett has built this team, and it is not the same as last year.

The head coach has a big say in roster construction under Jerry Jones, and there has been a serious remodeling. Some has been more renovation, in the form of the (hoped for) return of Travis Frederick to his status as one of the best centers in the league. There is also an element of reclamation in the return of Jason Witten. But the most important new skill elements on offense all point to a change of direction. Randall Cobb was signed in free agency, and if healthy, he is a much more versatile receiver than the one he replaces, Cole Beasley. Tony Pollard looks to be that highly flexible and very capable change-of-pace back that the team has been trying to incorporate since the days of Lance Dunbar, whose contributions were curtailed by injury. And UDFAs Jon’Vea Johnson and Jalen Guyton, plus free agent Devin Smith and returning WR Reggie Davis all have one very important trait in common: Speed. Lots of speed.

Why would the team add so many fast players if the plan was not to use them? It is reasonable to assume that Moore had some input in getting these players, which bolsters the idea that this is now a roster constructed to be much more aggressive. That should mean more passing and less leaning on the run, especially on first down.

There are still ways this could go badly, but the signs are all pointing in the right direction. This reshaping of the offensive roster indicates that Garrett and Moore are talking the same language for this fall.

If that is true, then we should have a very good campaign coming. The working relationship of Garrett and Moore is crucial. So far, it looks good.

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