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Cowboys hot topic: Kellen Moore is dealing from a stacked deck

Was it the OC, the QB, the WRs, or the O line? The answer is yes.

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NFL: Preseason-Houston Texans at Dallas Cowboys
All smiles now.
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

It was exactly what Cowboys fans hoped for. After an offseason and camp that seemed full of promise for a much more potent and consistent offense, the Dallas Cowboys delivered in spades against the New York Giants. Records were set. The young offensive coordinator looked like he had been toying with defenses for years. The quarterback’s performance was one of his very best in a young career. All the wide receivers balled out. There were no sacks. And even the grizzled old veteran showed there was still some fire in the furnace, even if all the snow has melted off the roof.

Call it an embarrassment of riches. It gave us plenty of fodder to digest. And it raises some questions, in a totally good way: Was this because Kellen Moore was so brilliant in planning and calling the game? Or was it the full house of talent finally showing through?

Chicken? Or the egg?

If you haven’t read my hand yet, let me tell you that I think it is clearly a case where both are equally important in what we saw.

Moore was creative, unpredictable, aggressive, and demonstrated how motion, personnel packages, and alignments can be used to force the defense to show its hand, and then exploit the weak point. He opened the game with a pass out of 12 personnel. The frenetic motion on some plays thoroughly confused the Giants’ secondary. And there was a beautiful example of how Moore is willing to break trends. Bob Sturm of The Athletic had such a great description of the first and ten play from the third quarter that I will quote him rather than try to do it myself.

This play is pretty hilarious. It is the first offensive snap of the second half and the Cowboys line up in the pistol. I have Dallas taking 13 snaps since 2016 in the pistol, and 12 have been running plays. If the Giants did their homework, they know this is a run (93%). Instead, the Cowboys call what appears to be play-action, but Zeke is trying to get to his blitz pick-up and therefore disregards the fake. Amazingly, it doesn’t matter. And the Giants also vacate the middle of the field as the safety looks preoccupied with Gallup on the outside where Janoris Jenkins hands him off. He also appears somewhat confused on what coverage he is running. Regardless, once Dak sees Antoine Bethea trying to run with Amari Cooper, he has an easy decision about where to go with the ball.

Sturm covered ten plays from the game, but really had to cap it at that. There were so many really good ones. If this is any indication of what Moore is, this is going to be some year for Dallas.

But it has to be admitted that making your plan work is so much easier when your players are so talented. Consider what Moore is able to use:

  • Dak Prescott staked an early claim to being a top five (or better) quarterback. It makes the idea of him becoming the highest paid at his position, at least for a while, much more palatable. But far more importantly, it portends great things for the team. He tied for the highest passer rating on opening weekend, had the highest ESPN QB rating, was second in total yards, fourth in completion percentage, second in yards gained per completions, second in touchdowns thrown, and had no interceptions or sacks. He is the ace of this offense, make no mistake. Just look at this passing chart:
  • The wide receivers were a three-headed monster. Michael Gallup had a breakout game, tying for the second most yards on only seven targets, all of which he caught. Amari Cooper picked right up where he left off last season after saving it for the Cowboys, contributing 106 yards and a TD. And Randall Cobb was no slouch, chipping in 69 yards on only five targets, including his own score. All averaged over 17 yards a catch. That is three of a kind you can win with.
  • The tight ends were a bit quieter, but still quite helpful, as both would notch a touchdown. Blake Jarwin outperformed Jason Witten statistically, but that four yard score to Witten displayed his savvy and skill, as he completely sold his block before peeling off to take one of the easiest pitch-and-catches you will see. There was also something to note from the snap counts. When Witten came back from his sabbatical in the broadcast booth, it was reported that he was willing to accept a lesser role. As you may recall, in his prior seasons, he almost never left the field. But in this game, he was only out there for 66% of the snaps. Blake Jarwin is not going to be buried the way previous TE2s were, as he was out there for 40%. That adds up to greater than 100%, because along with Dalton Schultz (13%), Moore deployed them in two-tight end sets on 13 plays. (And passed on four of those.)
  • Let’s not overlook the foundation of the offense, the offensive line. As mentioned, they gave up no sacks and only allowed two QB hits, and Prescott’s mobility played no real part in this. Most of the time, he was standing back in the pocket with plenty of time to survey the field. Not that he needed it, as he was getting the ball out quicker than he ever has.

There was really only one element of the offense that didn’t click on Sunday, and that was the running game. As you may have noticed, Ezekiel Elliott missed all of training camp while hanging in Cabo. He was on an obvious pitch count, and only had 14 touches the entire game, far below his usual. But even he started to show some of his old self, first on a nice screen pass that went for ten yards, and then with a vintage (and beautifully designed) run for the last Cowboys touchdown of the game. Expect Zeke to be more integral to the offense as he gets back into the flow of things. And for Moore to find ways to maximize his contributions the way he did with the receivers.

We really have no need to try and assign the bulk of the credit to anyone for this offensive explosion, one that was cut off by the team itself as the game was clearly out of reach for the Giants by the fourth quarter.

Just enjoy what we saw, and look forward to what is dealt against Washington.

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