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Strategy and luck may be coming together for the Cowboys

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Building and deploying a successful NFL team is complex and difficult. Maybe Dallas has gotten it right.

NFL: New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys
They are the faces of the franchise, and very important. But there is so much more.
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

We are switching over from the rosy afterglow of the Dallas Cowboys winning big over the New York Giants to focusing on the next game against Washington. Giddy as we may be as fans, we also have to exercise a bit of caution to try and curb out enthusiasm over one game against what seems to be a clearly inferior opponent. We need more data, and the next two games may not be the best sources, as both Washington and the Miami Dolphins are franchises with some significant issues of their own. Still, what we saw on Sunday in the most-watched NFL game of the week looks more like a sustainable improvement than a one-time aberration, like the game last year against the Jacksonville Jaguars. If that holds up, we should all be rejoicing that the team has done this.

By “this”, I mean put together a roster full of talent, much of it elite, and then use that talent properly and to good effect on the field. That is the crux of being a successful NFL franchise. It is hard, and requires skill from the front office, expertise and understanding on the coaching staff, and superior players that bring motivation to go with their talent. Sometimes teams rely more on one or two aspects than others. The New England Patriots are a prime example, where Bill Belichick’s phenomenal ability to take players that are not superb talents and put them in a position to succeed is unparalleled. Give him a small nucleus of stars, and he can build a Super Bowl champion composed largely of other teams’ castoffs and some overlooked draft picks. Other teams focus on assembling an all-star roster and just letting their collective abilities overwhelm the opponents. That seems to have been one of the ideas behind former Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan’s offensive philosophy. It is probably a very common approach in the league. It also is one that is not often executed at all well.

With the caveat (that we won’t be able to use much longer) of just having one game to study, it appears that Dallas has managed to get all three things right. That is a testament to planning and skill, but there is a sizable element of luck involved, too.

The big buzz this season has been about Kellen Moore, who is suddenly the latest wunderkind coordinator in the league. It is a remarkable story, and a very rare sequence of events that led to him even getting the chance. You are probably very familiar with his backstory as an incredibly successful college quarterback despite some serious limitations in athleticism and stature. But his path to the offensive coordinator position is an example of how luck plays into things. First, despite setting multiple records at Boise State, he went undrafted in 2012. The Detroit Lions felt he was worth signing as a UDFA. It just so happens that the offensive coordinator there was one Scott Linehan. While Moore never showed much on the field, Linehan was highly impressed by his knowledge of the game and intelligence. When Linehan was dismissed during a general housecleaning when Lions head coach Jim Schwartz was fired after the 2013 season, he was hired by the Cowboys, who were in the process of trying to assemble a talent-heavy offense, featuring Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, and the offensive line. Moore would be released by the Lions before the 2015 season, and Linehan got the Cowboys to sign him as a backup to Romo.

Moore’s one real chance to make it as a player vanished before it truly happened, as he suffered a season-ending freak injury early in the 2016 training camp. His chance would have come when Romo was injured later in a preseason game. But Dak Prescott had moved up to the primary backup job by then, so he was next man up. The rest is history.

Moore would retire in 2018 and be re-hired by the team, as the new quarterbacks coach. Obviously, Linehan was not the only one who was impressed by him. He wound up as the offensive coordinator with just a year’s experience in the coaching ranks. He had gained the trust of Jason Garrett, Jerry Jones, and the man who he worked most closely with, Prescott.

That is about as clear a case of being in the right place at the right time as you are going to find. Had Moore not been there with his employer, head coach, and the QB who would be crucial to his offense, and won them all over, someone else would be handling the duties.

Of course, it takes more than just the coordinator. While an outstanding one can take league average players and find some success, it almost always takes at least a couple of real stars to make things click. Logically, the more you have, the better. The Cowboys right now may be as loaded on offense as any team in the league.

That does not happen overnight, despite some serious attempts at doing it by many teams, including Dallas in the past. The offense that went off on the Giants has deep roots, going all the way back to the drafting of Tyron Smith in the first round in 2011. Not coincidentally, that was the first year that Garrett was the head coach in the war room for the draft. Since then, they have filled out the offensive line with three more premium picks plus La’el Collins, who would have gone in the first if not for the unfortunate series of events that briefly cast a shadow of suspicion, later removed, over him. They also drafted Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, and Michael Gallup. They traded for Amari Cooper and signed free agent Randall Cobb. Only Jason Witten predates Garrett’s advent as HC, and he just came back after a foray into the Monday Night Football booth.

This is a team designed to Garrett’s vision. Will McClay finds the talent to fill the roles and Stephen Jones figures out how to pay those who fill them, but Garrett is the one defining them.

For that reason, the offseason concerns about Garrett letting Moore run things his way were probably overblown. Garrett knows as well as anyone what his players are capable of being. He has spent years working with Moore, so he had to have known what Moore would try as offensive coordinator. All indications are that he was a full supporter of the promotion. That argues that the offense we saw on the field in the season opener was exactly what Garrett wanted. It may have been a bit more aggressive than he is comfortable with, but you don’t rein in the horse while it is pulling away - or at least you shouldn’t. We can expect to see more running as Elliott gets some more practice time after his holdout, but Moore should also inject creativity and unpredictability into that phase of the game.

What is remarkable is that Moore is walking into a situation where most of his offensive roster is at, or very near, the peak of their careers. His performance in his first week just added fuel to the argument that Linehan was misusing his personnel, particularly with his tendency to sit on a lead and milk the clock. He was too conservative and relied too much on having better athletes than the other team. It is ironic that such a reliance contributed to him leaving the team just as it was achieving that very state.

Most of the attention this week has been on the offense, but the defense is an interesting parallel. The team went outside to get its new coordinator two years ago in Kris Richard. Somewhat amazingly, they did so while retaining Rod Marinelli, who still holds the defensive coordinator title, but has actually become the line coach, while Richard handles the overall management of the defense. And his array of talent is nearly as impressive as Moore’s. He has a star defensive end in DeMarcus Lawrence, another, Robert Quinn, serving one more week of suspension, Maliek Collins, a 3-technique who is on track for a breakout year, and a secondary that is young and stingy, featuring players like Byron Jones, Chidobe Awuzie, Xavier Woods, and Jourdan Lewis, the little corner who can. The centerpiece, both figuratively and literally, is the two-headed beast comprised of Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch.

Smith is the biggest story of player growth and development in light of his devastating injury in his last college game for Notre Dame. But he is just part of a group of ascending talents. They are all over the roster, on the offensive line in Connor Williams and La’el Collins, at WR in Gallup, and just about all the defensive backs. None, however, has the potential impact of Prescott. That first game showed just how much of a leap he has made in his fourth season. If he can be consistent, this is indeed a likely playoff team set for a deep run.

There is one more element that underlies all this. That is the relationship between Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett. Although the head coach is in a contract year, his near-decade of time has brought a stability to the Cowboys, and he has an excellent relationship with his owner, even if he is having to prove that he does deserve another deal. The blueprint for this roster is mainly drawn up by Garrett, with some heavy input from his coordinators. He has the advantage of an owner who also has a tremendous understanding growing from his active participation as the GM. That understanding was hard earned, with some really rough years after the departure of Jimmy Johnson, but the old dog has proven he can learn some new tricks after all. The greater role of Jerry’s son Stephen has become just another strength. With McClay, the four men compose one of the most collaborative front offices in the league. They have taken a long view of things, while still trying every year to win it all. Now everything seems about to come to fruition.

It does leave us wondering just why Linehan got another year after things went south in 2017. Is it possible that they already suspected that Moore might be the answer for the longer term, and were willing to give Linehan one more chance knowing they had his replacement gaining a year of experience on the staff? The ultimate irony is that Linehan still has to get most of the credit for discovering his own replacement.

Now we have to see if this is as real as we hope. Dallas faces two very winnable games, at least on paper, before what should be their first real test in the New Orleans Saints on the road in week 4, in a primetime game that could garner impressive ratings. Once we get to that point, we will have a lot more data to evaluate this edition of the Cowboys.