Oh, my. The Dallas Cowboys’ opening game of 2019 turned out to be quite impressive. It turned into a romp over the New York Giants in the second and third quarters, and had the team not decided to take the foot off the pedal, it looked like they could have easily added more points. Simply put, after having to punt on their first drive, the passing game was outstanding. The run game was more just there to keep the Giants honest, but if this was any indication, that is a good thing.
While this kind of performance will have to be duplicated, this is still a major vindication of the decision to promote Kellen Moore to the offensive coordinator’s job, and the coming huge contract that is about to enrich Dak Prescott. And as old friend of the site Dawn Macelli pointed out to me, it also provides some evidence of the value of new quarterbacks coach Jon Kitna. Oh, and guys catching the passes have to be talked about, as both the wide receivers and tight ends had big moments. A lot of big moments.
The defense was a different story. They certainly were good enough, holding the Giants to 17. But they gave up a lot of yards, and had more breakdowns than we like to see. Still, they had some things they did quite well.
So let’s dive into the numbers and see what they illustrate about a very gratifying win. (All stats taken from the NFL’s GSIS system.)
32 passes, 25 completions (78%), 405 yards, four TDs, and the much ballyhooed perfect 158.3 passer rating. This was arguably his best performance since entering the league. It resulted from over three years of work, practice, drills, and game experience. It certainly seems reasonable to argue that Prescott has taken that crucial next step. And just as reasonable to give Kitna credit for helping him with his mechanics and avoiding bad throws.
From watching the game live, it was easy to understand Troy Aikman’s comments from the broadcast booth that he doesn’t quite get the perfect rating thing. Prescott had some passes that were a bit behind his receivers. He did have a few that were absolute perfection, like the perfectly placed touchdown to Amari Cooper. But he also was not a pinpoint passer throughout the game.
That is where Moore’s contributions enter. Prescott did not have to make precision passes all the time, because the scheme and routes were getting his receivers so open. This led to a very effective 12.7 yards gained per pass play. There has been a raging argument about the relative value of passes versus runs, and this game was a huge argument in favor of the former.
First-down play selection
The Cowboys ran the ball 18 times on first down (not counting the kneeldown at the end of the game), and threw the ball 11 times. That is a decent mix, but it is skewed a bit by the fourth quarter, when the Cowboys had basically stopped trying to score. They had a 25 point lead at the end of the third, and went conservative. Ezekiel Elliott had been taken out of the game, probably part of the idea of a “pitch count”. On every first down in the last period, Tony Pollard took a handoff.
There was no reason to keep pressing things, and simple handoffs (including some from Cooper Rush late) helped prevent any pointless injuries. It appears Dallas got out of the game with none, which is always a major accomplishment - especially in a win.
If you take out the fourth quarter numbers, the split was 14 runs and 11 passes. That is balanced enough to keep the defense guessing, and proved to be very efficient.
Overall play selection
This goes hand in hand with the first down calls, but also tells us a bit more. The Cowboys had 30 rushing plays and 32 pass plays, which looks like a very balanced approach. But just like with the first down calls, you really have to take out the fourth quarter to get a better view of what Moore was doing offensively. The Cowboys had ten handoffs and only two pass attempts then. That meant that when the offense was trying to score, they had 30 passes and only 20 rushes. This game was all about the air attack.
This was very good for the Cowboys on both sides of the ball. When they were on offense, they were successful on 6 of their 10 third down attempts, which is quite healthy. But again, if you take out the “don’t care” fourth quarter, they were a nearly perfect 6 of 7.
And of course, they converted every single third down on the five scoring drives. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Defensively, Dallas stopped the Giants on almost every third down, limiting them to a paltry 2 for 11 (18%). That is probably the biggest help the defense provided for the night. They also held New York to 1 of 3 on fourth down attempts. If the Giants couldn’t get it done on first and second down, they were pretty much dead in the water.
Offensive splash plays
Last season, the Cowboys were just not good at impact plays on offense, generally defined as those that gain 20 yards or more. Against the Giants, Dallas had seven. All through the air.
Just as important was the air yards involved. According to the NFL stats people, five of those plays were deep passes. Only two were short throws with the bulk of the yards gained after the catch. The meme of Prescott as a “dink and dunk” thrower took a major hit in this game. (It will probably live on in zombie fashion, because facts tend to bounce off such things.)
This has to be credited to Moore. He called even more, such as the incompletion to Jamize Olawale. Even though it was a bit short, bouncing off the defender’s helmet, it put the use of the fullback down the field on video. That is just one more headache for defenses to try and handle.
It’s just one game. But it may be the first bit of evidence that this could be the best group of receivers ever for the Cowboys.
That’s a pretty bold claim, but look at these numbers:
Two receivers over 100 yards. Four different players with a TD catch. The distribution is also significant. Prescott (and Moore) spread it around to the wide receivers, who had the bulk of receptions. And the two deep threats led the way.
That is how you utilize your pass catchers in a modern NFL offense. The wide receivers, particularly the outside ones, are your long range artillery. This is one of the most obvious changes from last season, when Elliott led the team in receptions, averaging only 7.4 yards per catch, and slot receiver Cole Beasley was second, with 10.3 yards gained on average.
Michael Gallup gained 22.6 yards on average. Amari Cooper was at 17.7. Randall Cobb had 17.3. Of course you want to get the ball to these three most of the time, because they do most of the damage.
It is still so very early, of course, but if this keeps up, we will have to discuss whether this is the best top trio of wide receivers the team has ever had. We’ll wait just a bit on that, and see how they do against better secondaries. It was still a remarkable performance.
And the tight end numbers hint at clear roles for them. Blake Jarwin is more an integral component of the downfield passing game, getting 13.3 yards per catch, with that beautiful, wide open touchdown. Jason Witten is still that needed short range artist, able to get open when you need to cover five or so yards, or Prescott needs a dump off to make a positive play when the downfield options are covered.
One interesting tidbit: The Cowboys lined up for the first offensive play with 12 personnel (one running back and two tight ends) - and threw the ball. It wasn’t the only time they had both Witten and Jarwin on the field, and it did not signal run at all. The unpredictability of Moore’s offense is a real thing.
The distribution of passes reveal that the Giants weren’t taking much away at all, and their secondary was just not good. But again, part of that was due to Moore, who used that wonderful pre-snap motion to manipulate and confuse the defense. The results speak for themselves - loudly.
The running game
At first glance, this looks like one place the Giants came out on top:
Saquon Barkley: 11 rushes, 120 yards, long of 59, no TDs
Ezekiel Elliott: 13 carries, 59 yards, long of 10, 1 TD
Barkley was twice as proficient. And it didn’t matter. Because when the Cowboys started running up the score, they forced the Giants to rely on Eli Manning’s arm.
Normally, that is a good thing for a defense. But Manning actually had a good night statistically, going 30 for 44, for 306 yards and a touchdown, with no interceptions. It just fell far short of what Prescott did. And there were all those failed third and fourth downs, plus the fumble he lost.
Sacks and interceptions
This was a dim spot for the Cowboys defense, as they only had one sack (split between DeMarcus Lawrence and Leighton Vander Esch), no interceptions (although Vander Esch came oh so close), and two fumbles taken away. The Hot Boyz failed to live up to their nickname.
But there was pressure on Manning. He took six hits, and had people bearing down on him, including one play where the defense just couldn’t get him to the ground.
Prescott was virtually untouched. He was only hit twice, and never sacked. There were plays where he had no one around him as he calmly surveyed the field, usually to throw a strike. The Cowboys had zero fumbles as well. The Dallas defense may not have excelled in this aspect. They still won the battle.
Red zone success
The Cowboys only had two red zone drives. Those were an issue last year, but this game, they were perfect, coming away with touchdowns both times.
The Giants were just 50%, which played a role in the victory.
No field goal attempts
Why worry about Brett Maher when you don’t have to use him?
The Giant question
Simply put, was this just a bad opponent, particularly on defense? We won’t know for a while. We also don’t know how well Moore, Prescott, and company can duplicate this remarkable performance.
But if you are looking for indicators, they are almost universally positive - VERY positive. This was as good a first game as could have been hoped for. On a weekend when many teams were characterized as effectively still playing preseason games, the Cowboys looked in midseason form, especially offensively.
We’ll see how the next game against Washington shakes out. Hopefully, the numbers will be just as much fun to dig into.