For a while, it looked as if nothing could stop this Cowboys offense. Even in their one loss to the Buccaneers, the offense executed at a high level despite having a nonexistent running game. But since the bye week, Dallas has had an up-and-down go of things offensively. It was to be expected in Minnesota, since Dak Prescott didn’t play, but they still haven’t found their rhythm again since then.
It’s weird to say this considering the offense decimated the Falcons defense two weeks ago, but that delicious 40 burger has been sandwiched by two extremely disappointing offensive performances in which everyone, including Prescott, has played poorly. Neither game came against elite defenses either, which is more alarming. And to go a step further, even that performance against the Falcons wasn’t up to their standards; rather, it was a pretty terrible defense making things especially easy for Dallas.
Last week, as we all prepared for what we thought would be an entertaining offensive shootout between the Cowboys and Chiefs, this great piece from The Ringer dropped. Detailing the offense Kellen Moore has created in Dallas, it perfectly explained how their lack of identity is their identity:
To put it another way, the offense is like a restaurant with a big menu. It’s ambitious, and awfully hard to pull off. But Moore is doing just that. To understand where this philosophy—or lack thereof—comes from, and how Moore is running it, we have to go back to his days as one of the most prolific passers in NCAA history.
“I wondered how an offense can’t be a system,” he wrote. “Coordinators pride themselves on establishing identities: ‘It’s what we do’ is a common mantra among the coaching profession. … Well, apparently Boise was the Seinfeld of college football—their lack of identity is their identity.”
It’s true that Moore, like his coaches at Boise State, has excelled in crafting an offense that can quite literally do anything. However, there is one element to his “scheme” that has been a big part of the Cowboys’ success this year.
Put simply, the Cowboys excel at moving the chains and staying ahead of schedule. Not only that, but Moore’s offense did a great job at moving the chains before reaching third down, putting less pressure on the team to have to convert. And even then, many of their third downs came in spots where Mike McCarthy had already given them the green light to go for it on fourth, allowing Moore and Prescott to treat third down like second down.
And the weekly "how often do offenses convert to a new series after each down" chart (as well as the defensive counterpart).— Timo Riske (@PFF_Moo) October 19, 2021
Chiefs still on a historic pace. pic.twitter.com/WUDCR7nRvx
Through the first six weeks of the season - when the Cowboys went 5-1 and scored 28 points or more in five games - they were moving the chains on first down at the highest rate in the NFL, at 30%. Their 59% conversion rate on second down was third-highest in the NFL, as was their 78% conversion rate on third down. To clarify, this measurement is cumulative, meaning that Dallas had converted 78% of their possessions by the time third down was complete; as cool as it would be to have a 78% conversion rate on just third down, that isn’t what this graphic is saying.
These numbers are important because we know that, generally speaking, third-down conversion rates are not very stable metrics. For example, the Los Angeles Chargers were facing an unusually high number of third downs early in the season and completing them at a very high rate. They’ve since cooled off on those third down conversions, and their offense has become less efficient as of late. So Dallas being able to move the chains at high rates on every down was big, because it meant less reliance on third-down conversions where things become trickier.
They’ve since gotten away from that formula. We’ll exclude the Vikings game, because it was obvious that Moore altered his game plan with Cooper Rush under center. But over the last three weeks - the three games since Prescott returned from his calf injury - the Cowboys are moving the chains on 17% of their first downs, 28% of their second downs, and 42% of their third downs.
The caveat, you might say, is that two of those three games have been fairly abysmal ones for Dallas. That’s true, but this issue was prevalent in the Falcons game as well. In that one, Dallas moved the chains on 18% of their first downs, 35% of their second downs, and 46% of their third downs. Three of their five touchdown drives required successful fourth-down conversions to happen.
The ethos of this offense for Moore has been aggressive strikes on first down, with the idea being that even if they don’t convert on that first down they’re in great position to do so on second down and thus stay ahead of schedule. This is done to avoid third downs where luck - either good or bad - comes into play more so than early downs.
The Cowboys have seen a lot more third downs in each of their last three games than they did before the bye week. Against the Broncos and Chiefs, two games where the Cowboys had a lot of bad luck in general, it went against them. They got luckier against Atlanta, a much worse team than Denver and Kansas City. Either way, the Cowboys need to get back to making their own luck with bigger gains on the early downs if they want to return to the dominance that had them win six straight games.