Let’s take a break from free agency talk and draft prognostications about the Dallas Cowboys. Those will work themselves out, and on offense, they will probably turn out fairly well, albeit expensively in a couple of cases. Instead, today let’s consider something that has major implications for the 2020 season. Mike McCarthy came in as the new head coach. There was a general housecleaning of the old staff, but one major retention got the attention of us all. Kellen Moore kept his job as the offensive coordinator. McCarthy said he really liked what he saw from Moore’s offense.
So what exactly did McCarthy like in an 8-8 season that was very up and down for the team? I took a look back at 2019, and may just have found it. The Cowboys won all their home divisional matchups and two of the three road games - in impressive fashion. Here is a table of some of the more pertinent team stats.
2019 divisional games
|3rd down eff.||60%||64%||57%||36%||21%||53%|
|RZ eff||100%||75%||60%||33%||0% (0-2)||67%|
|Goal to go eff||100%||67%||100%||N/A||N/A||100%|
(N/A indicates games where Dallas did not face any goal to go situations.)
Just to refresh your mind, the first win over the Giants was in week 1. The game at Washington was week 2, while the Eagles came to AT&T Stadium in week 7 with the trip to New York in week 9 after Dallas had their bye. The lone bad game was of course in week 16 at Philadelphia and Washington at home was the final game of the season. So these performances represent the beginning, a couple of games in the middle, and the end. And they included five of the most dominant performances by Dallas all season.
Obviously, the loss to the Eagles that effectively ended their playoff hopes sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb. It was a game where everything went wrong, but it may have implications that need to be considered, and we’ll get to that later.
First, however, look at the numbers for the five wins. 400 yards of offense and over 30 points in each. One game was carried by Prescott’s passing, but the rest were very balanced with potent ground attacks. All but one of the wins featured third down conversion rates over 50%, which will win a lot of games. There were struggles later in the year in the red zone, but the points totals showed that the team was able to overcome them at times.
This is probably what McCarthy was looking at when he decided that Moore had shown him enough in that rookie season as offensive coordinator. The first game showed just what his game plan could do through the air when the running game was not at peak form. The rest of the wins showed that Moore could, and did, utilize the ground game to good effect. McCarthy has stated that he intends to keep Ezekiel Elliott in a key role on offense, as well as saying he is looking to utilize two-back sets more. Moore put impressive performances together to prove he is up to the task.
This also shows some of just what went wrong in Jason Garrett’s final season and why he was not brought back. At home, the Cowboys just were more aggressive in their attack. They didn’t just get leads, they kept the pedal down and piled on the points. Away, even though they still had a couple of nice wins in the division, they were notably more cautious, a trend that often showed up in the rest of the schedule. There was also a tendency to be timid against better teams all season.
It is reasonable to think that McCarthy believes he can correct those errors. The hope is that he will unleash Moore and the offense in all situations. If a team scores 30 or more points, it almost always comes away with the win. That is what we saw all season from Dallas in 2019. If they failed to get to 30, they lost. Over, and they put one in the win column. This Jeckyll and Hyde aspect was a major factor in the failure to make the playoffs.
That is also likely a major element in that Eagles loss. The Cowboys just looked like they were playing scared, and that does not win games in the NFL.
The potential for this to work is certainly there. While the contract situations for Prescott, Amari Cooper, and Randall Cobb are still unresolved, it is expected that the team will get things sorted out in due course. They also will likely get another weapon by drafting a wide receiver, perhaps even in the first round. The reported decision to make a second-round tender to tight end Blake Jarwin coupled with the expectation that Jason Witten will not return also shows a move to look more at the position as a receiver than a run blocker.
Last year ended in disappointment, but it may have paved the way to realize the full potential of this team. Those games in the division may be the road map to get there.