Maybe it’s just because I’m old, but the out-of-state portion of the Dallas Cowboys’ 2019 training camp seems to have really flown by. Now the team is headed out for a grueling and not doubt exhausting trial in (checks notes) Hawaii . . . OK, maybe not so bad a place to face off against the Los Angeles Rams. After the second preseason game is in the books, the team heads back to the Star in Frisco to finish preparing for the season and evaluating players for the big cutdown to 53. For the past three weeks, we have been bombarded with impressions and reports from camp. Now to take a step back and try to sum up what we know, and what was accomplished.
One good note: The only real disappointment is the lack of completion on the big three contract extensions. I almost said progress, but we can’t really be sure of that. Ezekiel Elliott is still undergoing his own hardship stay in Cabo as he holds out. The Dak Prescott negotiations have gone full media spin cycle. And all remains quiet on the Amari Cooper front.
What hasn’t happened is any big injuries. There are still several players that have not been cleared to practice, and a lot of (hopefully) minor ailments have cropped up to limit others. Most of those have involved players that the team doesn’t really need to see much from in camp. That means more reps for players fighting for one of the few open spots, which is good for them and the staff.
The obligatory annual suspensions for defensive linemen continued. This is one of the worst traditions for the Cowboys and it just keeps happening. Randy Gregory was already on indefinite suspension, and there has been no word on an application for reinstatement that had seemed to be imminent. That is worrisome. The possibility of a setback in his recovery has to be considered, but without word from his camp or the team, we just have to wait. And now free agent signee Robert Quinn has been sidelined for the first two games. The circumstances of his suspension are questionable at best, but something he and the team just have to work through. He had already been taken out of practice due to a hand injury, so the depth players at defensive end have had plenty of opportunity to prove themselves.
That depth has looked very good at times, and not just at DE. The secondary was probably the best unit overall during camp. The projected starters all looked good, and Xavier Woods and Chidobe Awuzie both looked poised for a breakout season. Jourdan Lewis continues to make the argument for his roster spot despite not fitting the Kris Richard mold. Linebacker is also more than solid. The return of Travis Frederick was a huge boost for the offensive line, and while he is still working through the rust of missing last year, he appears on track to be near his old self for the regular season. We all hoped for serious improvement from Connor Williams, and there was also evidence that it has happened.
The best battle of all may be for the last wide receiver slot or two, depending on how many the team elects to carry. Cedrick Wilson was the standout in the first preseason game before getting injured and placed in the concussion protocol. But the other WR contenders have all had some impressive moments. And we have to be happy about what we have seen from Michael Gallup, Tavon Austin, and Randall Cobb while Amari Cooper is dealing with a ligament issue.
Tight end looks to be a position where the team will go light, with only three likely on the 53. But Jason Witten’s return and some impressive reps from Blake Jarwin obviate any great concerns there. Elliott’s holdout casts an uneasy shadow over running back, but rookie Tony Pollard has been praised for his work, and has shown that he can run between the tackles as well as be that elusive change-of-pace back we thought he was drafted for. Alfred Morris is back as holdout insurance, which is somewhat comforting. We even have seen some impressive plays featuring Jamize Olawale. Fullback may be more than an afterthought in the offense this year.
At the most important position, Dak Prescott has continued to look much better in practice than in his first three years, and was crisp and efficient in his one preseason series so far. We even got some reassurance in that game that Cooper Rush may be a workable backup.
But the big story this year is the advent of Kellen Moore to replace Scott Linehan as offensive coordinator and play caller. The first preseason game took the concept of vanilla play calling to a new level of bland, but the practices have been full of motion and creative use of the personnel. We may get little more in the remaining preseason games given Jason Garrett’s approach of keeping things under wraps until the games count. There are still plenty of reasons for hope.
Some excellent ones were listed in an article on Moore from affiliate site The Ringer, which was added to our front page. Citing Moore’s college background, it offered this:
Under Linehan in 2018, Dallas utilized pre-snap motion on just 31 percent of its plays, according to Sports Info Solutions. That figure ranked 24th in the league and was well below the NFL average of 36.6 percent. The Cowboys’ static approach, replete with passing concepts that often featured the receivers executing the same route combinations on both sides of the formation, made the Cowboys predictable. The hope is that Moore can add more layers to this system, ones that will bewilder defenses. And the early signs point to a more creative approach.
Moore and Garrett made a blanket decision to keep the offense’s language consistent from what Dallas has used in the past. With nearly every starter from 2018’s unit returning this year, Moore felt no need to add extra confusion to the offensive installation. Many of the route types and combinations will also carry over from Linehan’s version. The biggest difference with Moore’s scheme will be the packaging. “Plays are plays,” Moore says. “Everybody’s got the same plays. At the end of the day, it’s how you present them.”
If Moore is able to make a real change in those areas of deception to disguise tendencies and make better use of his players’ skills, then it should be a good year for the offense. And there is one other area that could pay huge dividends.
As Moore has navigated the offseason and tried to determine what his version of this offense will look like, he’s tapped into his knowledge of Prescott’s preferences and devised plays that utilize his strengths. (New quarterback coach Jon) Kitna points to Prescott’s deep ball as a particularly impressive area of his game. “It’s tremendous,” Kitna says. “He throws it with great velocity, the right kind of air, the right kind of firmness.” Prescott’s 115.7 passer rating on deep throws ranked fourth in the NFL last season, behind only Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, and Aaron Rodgers. The issue was that the Cowboys hardly pushed the ball downfield: Just 10.8 percent of Prescott’s passes traveled 20 or more yards in the air, which ranked 24th out of 35 qualified quarterbacks. Moore would be smart to give vertical shots a stronger emphasis in this year’s offense, and the emergence of deep-ball specialist and second-year receiver Michael Gallup—who’s had a standout training camp so far—would only help matters.
That statistical tidbit about Prescott’s effectiveness going deep is particularly relevant as the debate rages about just how much money he is worth. His lack of use of the deep throw is often pointed to by skeptics, but the evidence certainly points to that being the fault of the scheme and the calls, not a lack of ability on the QB’s part. Dialing up more deep pass plays not only increases the ability to strike fast, it opens up things for the shorter passing game and the run. Moore has those three years of working with Prescott, two as a fellow member of the quarterback room and one as his QB coach, to give him a superb understanding of just what his field general is capable of. And Kitna has done a great job working with Prescott to correct his mechanical flaws and inconsistencies.
So as the team enjoys their semi-vacation in paradise, there is far more reason for hope than worry for the Cowboys. Once they get back to the Star, there will not be as much coming out of practices. Fortunately, we have seen a lot of good already.