One of the most exciting NFL Draft moments ever for Dallas Cowboys fans came when the first round played out in 2020 and the team landed wide receiver CeeDee Lamb. Exultation was the order of the day for almost all of us, while for many other fan bases, particularly that of our beloved rivals the Philadelphia Eagles, there was angst and frustration as Dallas loaded up the offense with arguably the best WR in the class. (If you want to relive that again, you can check out this video, but be warned it is NSFWFH.) As much fun as that was, the implications for the offense are the most important thing. Now with what is widely believed to be one of the elite receiver trios in the league, Kellen Moore has the ability to make the most commonly used personnel package, 11 (one back, one tight end, and three wide receivers) even more of a focus for his game plan. And he really should.
A recent article from DMN, written by Micheal Gehiken, makes a nice argument that this is a case of a rising tide raising all boats for the Dallas offense.
Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup should positively impact not only Prescott and the passing game. Elliott stands to be arguably as much of a beneficiary. The secret sauce to the Cowboys’ running game last season, an ingredient that coordinator Kellen Moore applied liberally, is how Elliott thrives when Dallas spreads out opposing defenses.
Cooper, Gallup and Randall Cobb each exceeded 700 snaps in 2019, as the offense was in “11” personnel — one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers — for about two-thirds of plays from scrimmage.
Of all personnel groupings the Cowboys deployed, including when multiple tight ends shared a field, Elliott found his greatest production from this “11” look.
The expected gains for Dak Prescott are obvious, but as the author notes, there is a bit of counter-intuitive nature to the assertion that Ezekiel Elliott also benefits. But it is true that Elliott was better on average running from an 11 set, and had his longest runs of the season in those situations.
That does not make a case that running the ball is a better use of the package, just that when the run is used, it is more effective with the defense unable to load the box. It is still important to not revert to the run-heavy approach we so often saw on early downs from the Cowboys the past few seasons. What it does create is synergy, where play-action is more effective and the run becomes more likely to succeed in short yardage when you do hand it off. That last has a caveat, though, because Moore still would be well-advised to not go with a multiple tight end set to get an extra blocker involved. While not everyone fully accepts it, the evidence continues to support that the most important factor in getting production on a run is the number of defenders in the box, not the blockers available. So even in short yardage situations, 11 personnel should still be the go-to alignment, and the ball should still be thrown if the defense brings another man inside to try and stop the run.
There still should be a smattering of two-TE or two-back packages used, just to throw some wrinkles at the defense. Pre-snap motion, however, can allow some real creativity, especially with a good receiving tight end like Blake Jarwin available to move out and provide an additional target. Tony Pollard and Elliott also can motion into the slot or even out wide to confound the opponent.
Those will always be gadget plays, to an extent. The bread and butter has to be 11, with an even higher percentage than the two-thirds Gehiken cites in his article. Bumping that up to 75% seems a good target. It allows the most talent on the field for passing, and with Elliott or Pollard, the team still has a potent ground weapon to use, with big play potential every time they touch the ball.
Last year, even with the questionable insistence on establishing the run, the Cowboys still had two 1,100 yard receivers in Cooper and Gallup. Lamb certainly has the potential to be that kind of producer on the field. Make no mistake, no matter what else it does for you, 11 personnel is a pass-first alignment, and should always be used as such. That definitely includes on early downs.
All of this still is reliant on the offensive coordinator. We have a tremendous hope that Moore is what we think he is, and will be given the freedom to bloom under Mike McCarthy. That in turn should maximize the talents and skills of Prescott, and benefit his teammates in turn.
Sadly, we still don’t know when we will get to see just how this all comes together. That is why we are having to look back to figure out the way forward rather than having new data to enter into the equation.
The good news is that we have seen much from Moore that points in the right direction. Hopefully, he will keep the Cowboys on the path.