We’ll knock the caveats out first. The score doesn’t matter, because it was preseason. The Los Angeles Rams had none of their starters on the field. The Dallas Cowboys were missing some key components themselves. Overall, it was a sloppy, mistake-filled game with 29 penalties by both teams.
But if you are a Cowboys fan, you should be very excited about this game. Because we saw the first real indications of what we have been wanting and hoping to see since January: A different breed of offense under new coordinator Kellen Moore.
It didn’t take long, either, as some significant indications came on the very first Dallas drive. And you didn’t have to look far. Pre-snap motion was brought into play, but what is really exciting is the play calls themselves. It is one thing to have good designs and concepts, but so much of the Cowboys’ season rides on how and when Moore is able to utilize them on the field. Here are some examples of why things seem to be working out quite well.
Oh, look, it’s a fullback being used
It only took three plays to see something that didn’t seem to be in the playbook last year. On their opening possession, the only one that would see the offensive starters play, the Cowboys faced a third and one from their own 12-yard line. They had been pinned back on their own three by a Johnny Hekker punt, and needed the conversion to keep the drive going. Moore came up with this.
Couple of things to note on this run from Jamie Olawale.— Connor Livesay (@ConnorNFLDraft) August 18, 2019
The Witten motion pulls a defender out of the box, and away from the running play. Travis Frederick corkscrews a grown man into the ground with ease. Nice little seal block from Marcus Lucas to open up a lane for Olawale. pic.twitter.com/ryyAmInA4A
There’s that pre-snap motion to start things off. But the biggie here is that, in a situation where the ball would almost certainly have gone to the deep back in the I set, the call was to hand off to Jamize Olawale, the fullback, and fake the toss. It was a safe, high-percentage play that worked just the way the team wanted it to.
This might have gone differently if Ezekiel Elliott had been in the backfield. But perhaps the success of this play will mean the it will still be in the repertoire when he is back in the fold. (He would not have been on the field for this play in any case, because he is not allowed on the field in preseason games when he is with the squad.)
We almost never saw Olawale touch the ball in 2018. The fullback is frankly a dying position in the league (although that may be one of those cyclical things), largely because a big, slower back who mostly just blocks is largely wasted in the pass-heavy offenses of today. But Olawale is not that breed of FB. He has speed to go with his size, and during his time with the Oakland Raiders, he showed that he can catch the ball and make plays in space as well. Training camp teased us with the prospect of him being used more. Now it looks like that is going to become a reality. He got some work after Dak Prescott and the rest of the starters went out, and was targeted on a pass from Mike White that was unfortunately underthrown just a bit, keeping him from converting a third down. But that, too, shows how he may become a potent part of those third and short situations. He is a sort of triple threat, able to lead block, take the ball himself on a quick hitter, or go out into the pattern.
Don’t settle, go deep
The next play after Olawale’s carry put the Cowboys in a hole, as mistakes in pass protection led to a Prescott sack and a second and 22 at the three-yard line (again). Pollard got most of the yardage needed with a 15-yard run (he would go on to dominate this series), setting up a third and seven. Last year, we would have known exactly what was coming: Four receivers would go to the first down sticks, and turn around to await a pass. All would have a defensive back sitting in their hip pocket ready to break things up, because the DBs knew where to wait for them. It was Scott Linehan’s stock third down and medium-to-long pass call.
But, as may have been mentioned, Linehan is not here any more. And this is what Moore decided to run.
Dak to Gallup for a 31 yard #DALvsLAR pic.twitter.com/341rWuPW2N— Andre’ ✭ Jackson (@therealdre_jack) August 18, 2019
Oh, look motion again. And then the receivers all run (get ready for it, because it is so radical) A VARIETY OF ROUTES! Then, to top it off, Prescott doesn’t go for just getting to the sticks - he goes deep, completing it for 31 yards (all in the air). There is some debate about whether the ball was underthrown or just placed where Gallup could make a play, but that is quibbling. Look at the willingness to air it out. Playing it safe is not the choice.
Spreading the ball around
Prescott would complete all five of his passes on this drive to remain at a 100% completion rate for the preseason. That has made a couple of headlines, but something else may be even more important: They were to five different receivers. In one drive, the offensive coordinator got the ball thrown to (in order) Tavon Austin, Michael Gallup, Pollard, Randall Cobb, and Jason Witten.
That makes things, you know, less predictable.
Give the old dog a new trick
OK, given how many years Witten has played, this is probably not the first time he has run out of this kind of formation.
Jason Witten sure knows how to get open at the top of routes. #Cowboys pic.twitter.com/5p9S0kYeNV— John Owning (@JohnOwning) August 18, 2019
What is worth noting is that Witten is moved out from the normal TE position. And the other receivers are on the opposite side of the formation, dictating single coverage on Witten. He may be ancient in football years, but there are few players in the game at any age who are better than he is at getting open when he only has one defender to work against. Moore knows this well, and puts his players in a position to succeed.
What an original idea!
Dictating the box
One of the running back topics out there on Twitter is about how the number of defenders in the box is not a response to the back being faced, but is driven by formation. The number and placement of wide receivers also has more effect on this than the RB. Pollard’s powerful 14-yard touchdown run to cap the first drive for Dallas is an excellent illustration of this.
Tony Pollard 14 yard TD run for the #Cowboys pic.twitter.com/4zeJxafFCP— Josh Norris (@JoshNorris) August 18, 2019
Notice the way having three wide receivers spread across the field to start the play pulls the defensive backs out. Then watch the safety behind the linebackers. As soon as the ball is snapped, he reacts to defend a pass to the left side of the end zone - which takes him out of exactly where Pollard is about to run. By using formation and personnel, Moore opened the field up for the run. It is far more efficient than sending two tight ends out and bunching the formation up to block all eleven defenders, who are now in the box.
A different attack in the red zone
The preceding examples all happened in the first series, but while the offense bogged down after that, especially when Mike White was at QB, Moore’s new approach was still showing. One final example was the touchdown that capped the successful six play (plus penalties), 76-yard drive led by Cooper Rush in the third quarter.
What a throw and catch by Cooper Rush and Devin Smith. (via @nflnetwork) pic.twitter.com/G3NEAmxGDj— RJ Ochoa (@rjochoa) August 18, 2019
So here the Cowboys were, in the red zone with a second down. And they go empty backfield. Jordan Chunn was in the formation, so it was 11 personnel, but Moore moved him to the slot and had the receivers spread across the field. No bunching up to run the ball. Let the quarterback make his read to find the open man. Rush did, hitting Devin Smith with a beautifully placed ball only he could bring down.
We were promised this. And now we are getting it.
One more caveat here at the end: It is just preseason, and until we see the real games, we won’t know for sure that this is all coming together. But the odds of this not being the direction the offense is going are becoming astonishingly small. To use an archaic, outdated term, this is all evidence that Moore is the real deal, forshizzle.