Is Jason Garrett going to be let go by the Cowboys? Will he ever finish his exit interviews? Is he going to be moved into a front office role? Are we alone in this universe? All of these are questions that we’ll seemingly never get an answer to, but one thing we do know for sure is that Kellen Moore was brilliant in his first year as an offensive coordinator.
Fans may look at the Cowboys’ 8-8 record and lack of a postseason appearance, as well as weighing their heavy desire to move on from the Garrett era, and think it a good idea to entirely clean house, including Moore. But a closer look reveals that Moore and his offense delivered the goods despite having all the odds stacked against them.
We’ve already heard the stats that make Moore look good: first in total yards, second in passing, fifth in rushing, and sixth in scoring. They also finished tied for second in third-down conversion rates. Their offensive nucleus of Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper, and Michael Gallup all had great statistical years. The offense ranked second in total offensive efficiency, or DVOA, while ranking third in rushing efficiency and fifth in passing efficiency.
Those are all great stats, and in most cases that’d be enough for an offensive coordinator to start getting head coach interviews around the league. But when your team fails to make the playoffs, you start to ask if those are empty numbers and who’s really to blame. Upon further review, Moore is not the one to blame.
Contrary to popular belief, most of Cowboys yards were not garbage yards
One of the critiques of the Cowboys offense that’s emerged recently is that all their yards and points came in garbage time when the team was already losing so bad that defenses were playing lax and letting Dak and Co. get easy completions. But the stats seem to refute that:
1. Leading an offense that was 2nd in yards/drive and 4th in points/drive is carrying an offense.— Scott Kacsmar (@ScottKacsmar) January 2, 2020
2. Garbage yards? Cowboys ranked 16th in pass plays while trailing by multiple scores in 4Q. BUF was the closest game he had to garbage yards and that was a small amount. https://t.co/MuswrrqZPk
In fact, after crunching the numbers, the Cowboys spent a total of two hours, two minutes, and 43 seconds trailing by two scores or more all season, which is just under 13% of the time in all of their games played. Furthermore, the Packers game in which Dallas trailed by multiple scores for three whole quarters accounts for almost 37% of that two hour time total. By contrast, Prescott’s 463 yards in that specific game only account for 9% of his total yards on the season, so that game wasn’t any sort of statistical outlier due to the circumstances of the game.
There are a few instances where it can be argued that the Cowboys really did benefit from garbage yards, but those instances are few and far between and most of them occurred in the month of December, where Prescott’s play actually dipped in quality. That makes what the offense did from a numbers perspective even more impressive.
Offensive pacing and efficiency was key to their success
A fairly reliable indicator of good offensive pace of play is often measured in average seconds it takes per play. The previous season, Dallas ranked 24th in pace with 28.73 seconds per play, and they also ranked 24th in offensive DVOA. This year, with Dallas finishing second in DVOA, they also saw a second place finish in pace with 25.54 seconds per play. The breakdown of that is even more interesting.
In situations where the game was within one score, the Cowboys under Moore ran the fastest offense in the league at 25.69 seconds per play. When they trailed by a touchdown or more, their pace sat at a crisp 22.04 seconds per play, second behind only the Rams. But when Dallas led by a touchdown or more, they dropped their pace of play considerably, running a play every 29.60 seconds, good for 21st in the league.
This matches the mentality of Bill Parcells, who preached doing all you can to get a lead and then bleeding the clock so the other team doesn’t have a chance to score. It’s also a pretty big reversal from Moore’s predecessor, whose MO was to bleed the clock regardless of situation. And as a result, Dallas finished third in the league in Football Outsiders’ drive success rate, which “measures the percentage of down series that result in a first down or touchdown.” That’s pretty darn good for a first time coordinator.
The offense was routinely set up to fail by their defense and special teams, yet they still succeeded
Here’s the part that makes all of this absolutely insane: the Cowboys consistently were given terrible starting field position and still had all the success described above. Starting field position is an underrated but vital part of a team’s success.
For example, the 2018 Bears went 12-4 and had head coach Matt Nagy looking like the next McVay. But in reality, his offense only ranked 20th in offensive DVOA that year and 14th in drive success rate. However, the Bears defense led the league in takeaways and as a result they had the sixth best average starting field position that year. This year, the Bears defense regressed towards the mean and Chicago had the 16th best starting field position, and missed the playoffs as a result.
For Dallas, the story was somewhat similar, though with different causes. Only five teams had less takeaways than the Cowboys, and their special teams unit was dismal: Chris Jones was dead last in the league in yards per punt and they finished 30th in DVOA, enjoying a nice upswing after Kai Forbath’s solid play was added to the team. That’s right, Forbath was so good that he improved their special teams all the way to third worst in the league. When he was signed, they were dead last.
Between this special teams horror show and the lack of defensive takeaways, Dallas had the third worst average starting field position. Their average drive started at the 26-yard line, which is only slightly better than a touchback. This means the Cowboys offense more often than not was asked to drive 70-80 yards each possession in order to score a touchdown. Very few offenses can overcome that.
Yet Moore’s group did. They averaged 39.99 yards per drive, second only to the Ravens, and had the fourth most points per drive. The odds were continually stacked against this unit, often by their own teammates and coaches, and yet they consistently delivered. Seeing this from any offensive coordinator is impressive, but from someone who’s never called plays before? That’s truly incredible.