And now, it has all fallen into place. After a very successful offseason of adding pieces to a roster that was already in pretty good shape, the Dallas Cowboys have running back Ezekiel Elliott back in the fold and are primed to kick off the regular season on Sunday afternoon against the New York Giants. Of course, for most NFL teams, this is still the time of optimism, often unwarranted. The harsh reality of losses will soon impose itself on many teams. Others will see their hopes come to fruition, and we are hoping the Cowboys fall into the latter category. What will help them get there, and hopefully to a deep run in the postseason? One thing is going to be very important, especially in the early going when teams often are still working out the bugs. That is finding the right rhythm, both on offense and defense.
This is a musical analysis, which is used here because (full disclosure) I was a band nerd. To extend the metaphor, the rhythm has to be set and controlled by the coordinators, Kellen Moore and Kris Richard. Their success in getting the players moving to the right beat will dictate how far this team can go.
It is more easily understandable in Moore’s case. He got the offensive coordinator job in large part to correct the problems Scott Linehan had in that area. Last season, we saw too much predictability and a plodding approach. It was march music, with a heavy, steady beat and little excitement. Now, Moore is tasked with adding some syncopation, jazz improvisation, and some rock and roll drive.
The much-anticipated and rehearsed motion is going to be a key element here. That lets the offense set the tempo of things, and dictate the dance steps by the defense. Finding the right mix of runs and passes is also a big part of it, and like a well-done solo, it allows for something unexpected to liven things up.
Just like any band, a football team has to have all the parts played correctly as well. The better the individual performers, the better the overall product. In that aspect, Moore has what is looking like a stellar group to work with. Dak Prescott has looked better in camp and preseason than in any of his prior years with the team. The wide receiver group, particularly the top three, are as good and versatile as any in a long, long time. Elliott can provide that driving beat when needed. The offensive line may be close to the peak we saw in 2016, especially with their heart back in place with the return of Travis Frederick. Finally, Jason Witten is that guy who’s done this for so long he knows all the songs and passages so well they are just automatic, and he can take off and riff when necessary to lift things while staying completely in tune with his quarterback.
Moore still has to provide the direction. That is the great unknown here, and while the rehearsals have looked good, we still haven’t heard what he really wants to play. We also still have to see just how much freedom he has under Jason Garrett. It’s the band Garrett put together, and there is still a bit of worry about the head coach wanting certain things, like the run, played more than his subordinate might prefer. Frankly, we have to hope Garrett has the faith to let his offensive coordinator do his job without interference.
Still, the signs have been positive so far.
On defense, we don’t have the unknowns, since Richard was running things last season. Rod Marinelli is really the line coach, and so far, the relationship looks to work very well. The rhythm for the defense works differently, and up front, a lot is all about the rotation. Marinelli has long based his approach to having waves of pass rushers to send out there. In the past, he has had some really good lead men, but the backups weren’t always able to keep up and hit the right notes. Now, he finally has depth players that look able to step in and not miss a beat. Again, this is the deepest crop of rushmen in memory. They and the rest of the defense bring a more hip-hop sensibility, right down to the “Hot Boyz” and “Purge” nicknames.
The defense also is tasked with interrupting the rhythm of the opponent. That is accomplished through negative plays like sacks, tackles for loss, and breaking up passes. But far and away, the biggest impact comes from takeaways. That has been a bit of a sore spot for the Cowboys in recent seasons. However, if the preseason in any way indicates what may be to come, that could be about to change. The Cowboys led all teams with eight picks, and added four forced fumbles, three of which they recovered. If coaching plays any part in that, then things look to be headed in the right direction.
And it just isn’t the line that is deep in talented performers. The linebacker corps may be the best in the league, with four players who could start on most NFL rosters. The defensive backs are also one of the more solid groups, especially at corner.
The question still remains as to how quickly it will all come together, but Dallas could have a very favorable first three games to make sure the kinks are worded out. The Giants, Washington, and the Miami Dolphins are all teams that, on paper at least, look to be very beatable. And of course, they have their own things to smooth out.
All the speculation and questions will soon see answers. If the Cowboys can get their rhythm right, this could be a very good year.