While nothing is official and the nature of the NFL means things can always change at a moment’s notice, it looks as if Kellen Moore will be coming back to the Cowboys after all. Three months ago, this would have been cause for celebration; heck, just a year ago at this time the Cowboys had to give him a raise to prevent the young coach from taking the top job at his alma mater.
Moore’s support among the fans is more split after the Cowboys offense experienced enough week-to-week variance over the second half of the season to give someone whiplash. It’s easy to forget that Moore’s offense finished sixth in offensive DVOA, making it the second time in three years running the offense that his unit has been in the top ten in efficiency. The Cowboys also led the league in points scored and total yards, while finishing third in yards per play, sixth in first downs, and seventh in EPA per play.
But in Dallas, it’s all about what you’ve done most recently, and Moore’s unit struggled to get going against a 49ers defense that lost its two best players (Nick Bosa and Fred Warner) during the game. Moore didn’t seem to have any answers until the Cowboys had dug themselves a hole too deep to get out of, which has been a recurring trend in the team’s losses this year.
While that makes it very easy to start doubting Moore when the expectation was a Super Bowl or bust, it’s important to take it all in context. Moore is undoubtedly a good offensive coordinator, and plenty of teams would love to have him. That much is evident in the fact that he interviewed for four different head coaching vacancies, while the Panthers hired offensive consultant Ben McAdoo to run their offense in 2022.
Moore’s offenses have been noticeably more dynamic and innovative than they ever were under Jason Garrett, whether he was the head coach or offensive coordinator. He’s overseen Dak Prescott making the jump into the upper echelon of quarterbacks, while players like Tony Pollard, Michael Gallup, Dalton Schultz, and Cedrick Wilson have all thrived under him despite their draft status.
In a way, Moore’s hot start as an offensive coordinator has raised the bar for him well beyond what should be considered realistic expectations. That’ll sound like I’m making excuses for him, but it’s important to remember that Moore is still only three years old as a coordinator and has just four years in total as a coach. For perspective, quarterbacks Ryan Tannehill, Russell Wilson, and Kirk Cousins all entered the NFL the same year as Moore did; so, too, did Cowboys specialists Greg Zuerlein and Bryan Anger.
Not only is Moore young for a coach, but he’s very green for an offensive coordinator. It generally takes some time for coaches to really refine their craft as a play-caller. Two examples of this are Mike McCarthy and the suddenly available/retired Sean Payton.
McCarthy spent four seasons as the Saints offensive coordinator under Jim Haslett, and had mixed results from year to year. That’s why New Orleans allowed him to make a lateral move to San Francisco under Mike Nolan. Even then, McCarthy’s offense finished dead last in DVOA, but the Packers named him their head coach. After a mediocre first year, the Packers offense took off under McCarthy’s play-calling as they finished in the top ten in DVOA for eight straight seasons despite having a change at quarterback from Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers during that time.
Payton had a slightly different track. After a year as the quarterbacks coach for the Giants in 1999, head coach Jim Fassel promoted Payton to offensive coordinator. He wasn’t an overnight success, though, and Fassel actually took over play-calling during the 2002 season when Payton’s offense failed to score 10 or more points in four of their first seven games. That led to Payton’s departure to Dallas, and the rest is history.
Calling plays at the NFL level is hard, and doing it at the highest level is even harder. Moore has shown evident promise, especially in terms of play design, but is still figuring out how to effectively game plan, adapt on the fly, and find solutions to problems during the year. The Cowboys need to help him reach the next level; after all, coach development is arguably just as important as player development.
McCarthy would seem an obvious resource for Moore, given his own history and track record. However, McCarthy seems to be pretty hands-off with this offense, and there have been rumblings in the past that granting full autonomy to Moore was a prerequisite for McCarthy when taking the job. Whether that’s true or not, the Cowboys can do more to help Moore grow as a coordinator by adding a veteran coach to the staff.
One such candidate would be John DeFilippo, who spent the past two seasons coaching quarterbacks for the Bears. DeFilippo was once the Kellen Moore of his time, nearly getting a head coaching gig when he coached quarterbacks for the Eagles. He just missed out and instead took the Vikings offensive coordinator job after winning a ring with Philadelphia. The Vikings fired him before his first season had even wrapped up, as DeFilippo’s pass-heavy tendencies clashed with head coach Mike Zimmer’s ground-and-pound philosophies.
Part of the reason DeFilippo garnered head coaching interest as a position coach was due to the fact that DeFilippo called plays for the Eagles in the red zone. DeFilippo earned a reputation as a brilliant red zone schemer, and that was evident in the Eagles scoring the second-most touchdowns per red zone appearance in 2017.
DeFilippo also has ample experience coordinating offenses, having spent a season each doing so for the Browns and Jaguars on top of his short tenure in Minnesota. He never had sustained success in the role, largely because the Browns and Jaguars aren’t exactly known for their success on the field, but the experience is invaluable. DeFilippo could act as a mentor to Moore, teaching him the tricks of the trade and things DeFilippo himself learned at each stop along the way.
Of course, there are plenty of other coaches who fit this mold too. It doesn’t have to be DeFilippo, but he has a unique history that might resonate well with Moore and is also available now that the Bears are turning a new page with their coaching staff.
Regardless of who the actual person is, the Cowboys owe it to themselves to get Moore some added assistance. He’s already proven his worth, but he might need a little more help to reach the next level. Unlocking that level for Moore could end up being the difference between another early exit and an actual championship run in Dallas.