There is a genuine and seemingly justified sense of optimism among fans of the Dallas Cowboys. It is more than the normal post-free agency/post-draft boost in confidence that permeates the league. Sometimes it seems that every fan base feels their team is much improved, and certainly the majority think they have acquired the players to get them to the playoffs or keep them there. But for the Cowboys, there are more reasons to feel good than normal. First, almost every outside observer thinks that this team has really crushed the offseason to date. Here’s one example.
Only teams to earn an A+ PFF draft grade and above average PFF free agency grade:— PFF (@PFF) May 9, 2020
Dallas Cowboys and Denver Broncos pic.twitter.com/5pJ7gR1ukc
So the talent acquisition process is getting rave reviews, but there is an additional component this year and that is the arrival of Mike McCarthy as the new head coach. He brought in a passel of new assistants, but did retain three holdovers from Jason Garrett’s last staff. The most important by far: Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore.
While there are certainly reasons to hope that the defense is going to change for the better, the enthusiasm about the Dallas offense is greater. Sadly, we won’t know exactly what McCarthy and Moore are cooking up until football activities finally return.
What we can do is build a wish list.
11 personnel all the time
For quite some time, the 11 personnel package has been the one the Cowboys use the most. If possible, they need to lean even more in that direction. Why? It is how they get the most talent on the field while putting the most stress on the defense.
Now, they have even more reason to go that direction after adding CeeDee Lamb in the draft. When you already have Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup, who both had very good seasons last year, why would you not want all three on the field together? That package also allows you to have Blake Jarwin on the field, and he seems poised to play a bigger role in the passing game with the (second) departure of Jason Witten. Give Dak Prescott as many effective targets as possible, and let Moore go to work.
However, the one knock on Jarwin is that he is not seen as very effective as a run blocker. The Cowboys will also have Ezekiel Elliott, still one of the top running backs in the league, and they will hardly not use his legs. There’s a little secret, though. The most important thing in determining the success of running plays is not blocking tight ends. It is spreading the defense out so they can’t load up the box. That is exactly what having three wide receivers on the field does, and it also forces teams into the nickel, which reduces their ability to stop the run even more. 11 personnel is Elliott’s friend.
There is also the twist of putting Tony Pollard in to relieve Elliott, which will be done on some series just to not wear the starter to a nub. He is not only a very good runner in his own right, but a real threat as a receiver out of the backfield or motioned out for an empty set. For that matter, Elliott is no slouch when he catches a pass, especially on a well-timed screen play.
There will still be a few situations where you go 12 personnel, even if it is more for deception at times. And 21 or 20 can be a very interesting package, since having Elliott and Pollard both on the field offers a chance for real creativity.
Still, give us a ton of 11 and prosper.
No more heavy reliance on the run on first down
Take a look at this.
One of our most persistent complaints about the Dallas offense the past couple of years was being too predictable on first down. As the chart shows, last season they were still leaning on the run on first down. They ran more than they passed in all but three games. One was a perfect 50/50 split, and of the two when they did pass to start a set of downs more than running it, one was the second Philadelphia Eagles game where Prescott was dealing with a shoulder problem. It was a game where a good backup quarterback might have led to a different outcome, but that should be absolutely no problem with Andy Dalton in the house now.
But to get back on topic, an even split is more what the team should be looking for. Give the defense no real tendency so they have to guess what is coming at them. Last year, the defense could cheat towards stopping the ground game, and they would be right more often than not - sometimes much more often.
Obviously, if either Elliott or Prescott has a hot hand in a game, tilting heavily towards one or the other makes sense. But the best thing is for both to be doing well, and still mixing it up to keep the defense as off balance as possible. The use of run/pass options can help increase the effectiveness by letting Prescott read the defense and taking what they give him. It also should make play action even more effective.
This should be a major task for Moore, and he should be up to the task.
Fully utilize what Dak does best - which is quite a lot
Prescott is better than he gets credit for in almost all aspects of the game. He is growing in his ability to read defenses and find the weakness. He already has good chemistry with Cooper and Gallup, and hopefully that will develop quickly with Lamb. There are likely more times when his running ability can be used effectively, as long as it is done with care to protecting his health. And then there’s this.
Highest graded QBs on throws 20+ yards downfield in 2019— PFF (@PFF) May 10, 2020
1. Russell Wilson: 98.9
2. Deshaun Watson: 98.2
3. Gardner Minshew: 94.7
4. Dak Prescott: 93.9 pic.twitter.com/NUqLsV5F6H
Bruce Arians of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers likes to say “No risk it, no biscuit.” That means that if you don’t take shots downfield passing, you pass up a lot of opportunities to score or gain chunk yards. For some reason, there is a persistent misconception that Prescott doesn’t throw deep well. The PFF analysis indicates that it may be more a result of not giving him enough opportunities. Both McCarthy and Moore should test him more on deep throws; that would be exciting.
Don’t forget the run game
While this has so far focused much more on throwing the ball, Elliott is just too good a weapon to not utilize properly. The offensive line should still be a strength for this team. They still have two All-Pros in Tyron Smith and Zack Martin, La’el Collins is underrated at right tackle, Connor Williams is still growing into his role, and between Joe Looney, Connor McGovern, and draftee Tyler Biadasz, they should be able to come up with an effective way to fill some of the void left by the retirement of Travis Frederick. That’s not to say they will be as good as prime Fredbeard, but they should keep the team from having a glaring weak spot in the middle of the line.
That, with the use of 11 personnel covered above, should allow the hungry one to eat properly. Pollard should get some tasty bites as well. Heck, maybe we will even see Jamize Olawale or, should he make the roster, Sewo Olonilua get some short yardage carries to move the sticks if they utilize two-back sets. It is certainly a play that has been markedly absent in recent years.
These are all hopes for the offense with Moore unleashed. The wait to see how it plays out will be long and somewhat agonizing. So let these sweet dreams fill your head in the meantime.