Are there times that this seems like a new and different version of the Dallas Cowboys? If you get that impression, you are right. After the 2019 season, Jerry Jones decided it was finally time to move on from Jason Garrett. He brought in Mike McCarthy as head coach. We all know that things went poorly in his debut season for a variety of reasons. McCarthy certainly made a big error in hiring Mike Nolan as his defensive coordinator and had to make his own change by replacing him this season with Dan Quinn. But one retention was also very important. Kellen Moore stayed on as offensive coordinator, and was given control of the offensive game plan and play-calling. This year, we are seeing hints that the Cowboys could be about to really turn things around. There are a lot of factors involved, but one thing may be overlooked. There is a flexibility about this team that is at times night and day compared to the previous regime.
Sometimes it may seem like we always harping on Garrett, although that is happening with his new job as offensive coordinator for the New York Giants as well. But long before the Cowboys gave up on him, there was a growing discontent with his rigidity. He even embraced that trait, saying in so many words that Dallas was going to line up and play their game no matter what the other team was doing. It was an extension of his constant refrain about the importance of being the best version of yourself. It also evinced itself at times in the work of Moore’s predecessor at OC, Scott Linehan. High frequency first-down runs, insufficient pre-snap motion, and telegraphing what was coming all led to frustration for the fans.
Things seem entirely different now. And after two games, they seem to be paying off. It is early still, but the Cowboys are doing things that are so much more encouraging. Here are some examples.
Moore’s offensive approach is “do whatever it takes”
This quote should warm the cockles of your heart. (I don’t really know what that means, either, but have always liked the expression.)
Kellen Moore on the Cowboys’ offensive philosophy: “Aggressively take what they give us.”— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) September 20, 2021
That is diametrically opposed to the way things were under Garrett. It is also the philosophy that most, if not all, successful play-callers in the NFL embrace, and the only one that makes sense. As a retired military officer, I often see parallels with what works and what doesn’t in football and combat. Successful military campaigns are mostly based on finding the vulnerable aspects of the opponents and exploiting them. It often also involves a lot of misdirection and deception. The most well-known example is the Normandy invasion, where the Allies mounted a massive deception operation to convince the Nazi military they were coming ashore at the most likely point, the Pas de Calais, then actually landed to the southwest against weaker defenses. But the First World War was a brutal example of attacking over and over against strong fixed defenses with forces that were ill suited to overcoming them. It was the bloodiest conflict in history and would be won only by sacrificing far more lives than should ever have happened.
Enough with the history lesson, however. Let’s look at how the Cowboys have changed under Moore and McCarthy.
There have seldom been back-to-back games where Dallas has had such completely different approaches offensively than the first two of this season. In the first, Moore recognized the near-impossibility of running against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense. Outside of an occasional run just to keep things honest or try to catch them off guard, it was all pass, all day. And it came very, very close to working for them. Then, with the Los Angeles Chargers having a much more exploitable run defense, he went heavy on the run, and squeaked out the thrilling victory.
One part of that was a much better use of his resources. Just a couple of years ago, an attempt to run on a team meant a big helping of Ezekiel Elliott, with just a garnish of Tony Pollard. Versus the Chargers, Moore had Pollard running the ball nearly as much as Elliott, with resounding success. This not only shows Moore’s flexibility, but is further evidence of how Garrett’s intransigence was holding the team back.
That flexibility can also evidence itself in a more creative approach.
I starting to think Kellen Moore gets bored sometimes. Clever formation having Tyron Smith and Terence Steele line up as wide receivers to help spring Tony Pollard for a 15-yard gain. pic.twitter.com/5Zm2TZplIA— Dan Rogers (@DannyPhantom24) September 20, 2021
That’s not to say it is inconceivable for Garrett to have green-lighted a play like that. It just takes a really wild imagination to think he could have. It was a brilliant way to get your best blockers out in front of a play, although one that is not going to be successful if used repeatedly. But as a surprise play, it worked extremely well.
There was another vivid illustration of the difference between then and now. In the infamous Atlanta Falcons drubbing of Dallas from 2017, the game plan inexplicably left Chaz Green, subbing for injured LT Tyron Smith, mostly on an island against journeyman pass rusher Adrian Clayborn. The result was a Falcons franchise record six sacks in a single game by Clayborn. It also left Dak Prescott rattled to such an extent that it would be nearly a year before he got his groove back.
Facing the Chargers, the Cowboys had a similar concern, this time at RT. With La’el Collins suspended and Ty Nsekhe out after suffering from heat stress after practicing under the Texas sun, they had to rely on Terence Steele. It must be stated that Steele is a better player than Green. After some disastrous outings when forced into play as a UDFA in 2020, he improved notably, and worked extremely hard to be even better during the offseason. Still, he was facing Joey Bosa, who has a significantly better pedigree than Clayborn. Yet with some help and through his own efforts, Steele largely nullified Bosa, who had no sacks or QB hits the entire game, and was hardly noticeable in applying pressure. Garrett’s approach was to line his man up against their man and let the best one win. It was a spectacular failure. Moore and offensive line coach Joe Philbin came up with a plan to protect their quarterback, and were very successful.
Moore is having a great year already. Having interviewed with the Philadelphia Eagles for their head coaching vacancy already this offseason, he is being touted by everyone from former Cowboy and current lead CBS analyst Tony Romo to his own head coach as a hot commodity for next year.
Speaking of flexibility, we are seeing it from the players as well. Elliott was effusive in his praise of Pollard after the Chargers game and takes pride in his contributions in pass protection. That truly helps when the coaches are asking you to assume a different or modified role.
Dan Quinn is on this train as well
The Cowboys also faced a dearth of pass rushers with both DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory out against Los Angeles. Without both the projected starters at DE for this season, Quinn had to come up with a solution. His employment of Micah Parsons in a pass rushing role was a roaring success and has been well-documented here at BTB and elsewhere. That solution may have been so obvious that previous defensive coaches would have done so. But at times, Rod Marinelli, Kris Richard, and Nolan all showed some traits of stubbornness that bring that into question. Quinn didn’t hesitate. That is not the only way he is exhibiting his own creativity, either.
Cowboys DC Dan Quinn said “big nickel” is his name for the personnel grouping when three safeties share a field at once. Team started Damontae Kazee, Jayron Kearse and Malik Hooker on Sunday.— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) September 20, 2021
That is not only a rarely used package for the Cowboys in the past, if at all, it was the first look they showed Justin Herbert and the Chargers. It certainly helps that Dallas actually has three capable safeties to put on the field even with the absence of Donovan Wilson. But it is still a refreshing bit of flexibility to see.
There is still a concern about not trying to see if Maurice Canady or Nahshon Wright could be more effective than Anthony Brown at cornerback. However, given the closeness of both the games so far this season, that may be more about waiting for a better time to give them a try. Dallas does not want to keep finding itself in one score games, which are a 50/50 proposition over time. Hopefully we will see them build a significant lead in a game soon and then give the backups a shot. They could also do so if they fall too far behind, but we certainly want them to avoid that.
Whether on offense or defense, Dallas is a much more adaptive team. They seek out the vulnerabilities and avoid the strengths. They also are so far making much better use of the resources they have, even when missing seven projected starters. This newfound flexibility may just take them a long way this season.