Much has been made about the late-season decline of the Dallas Cowboys offense in 2021. While the points per game over the last eleven games was still at 29.5, which is commendable, that number doesn't tell the entire story. The offense was wildly inconsistent, hanging 51 points on the Eagles in week 18 and then failing to break 20 points just one week later in a playoff matchup.
Fingers were pointing in every direction. Many blamed Dak Prescott for the passing game issues. The offensive line and running backs caught heat for the ineffectiveness of the running game. Many fans were calling for Kellen Moore to simply return to his weeks one-through-six play-calling.
While it might be surprising, Kellen Moore’s offense was essentially the same after the bye week as it was before.
Kellen Moore didn't change the offense mid-season
The offense changed. No one will argue that the production in weeks eight through 18 was equivalent to the first six. And this is also not an attempt to justify Kellen Moore’s decision-making. Later, we will address why not changing the offense is a big problem.
But by nearly every metric, Moore didn't adjust his scheme. Most of the stats taken below are from sharpfootballstats.com.
At the most basic level, rushing frequency did not change. Moore did not try to “establish the run” in the first half of the season and then stray away from that philosophy in the back half. Before the bye, in neutral situations (when the win percentage is between 30% to 70%) the Cowboys were passing on 55% of plays. Compare this to the back half of the year where they passed 56% of the time in neutral situations.
The neutral pass rate is nearly identical. When it seemed like Moore was passing more in the back half, it was because he had to, not because he was changing the offense. When the Cowboys were in a competitive game, Moore was running the ball just as much in the first half of the year as the second.
But the passing and running game took a nosedive in the second half of the year. So did something change with the play-calling?
Well, in terms of rushing, the answer is no. The primary complaint about Moore in weeks eight through 18 was that he was continually running the ball up the middle instead of bouncing it outside. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Before the bye, 58% of Dallas’ rushes were between the guards. After the bye, that number dropped to 53%. So, Moore was actually calling more outside runs post-bye. Once again, the rushing efficiency plummeted. But it is not because Moore was adamantly running it up the gut.
However, there is a lot more to dissect to determine if his passing game play-calling was different.
Let’s start at the most basic level, Moore was dialing up just as many deep passes over the second half of the year compared to the first. For one, Dak Prescott’s average depth of target actually increased by .2 after the bye. In weeks one through six, 15% of Prescott’s targets were deemed “deep,” but that number jumped to 19% after week seven. There is little to no evidence to suggest that Moore was employing a “dink and dunk” offense after the bye. He maintained, and actually increased, his aggression on passing play calls.
And many were calling for an increased usage of no huddle. There is merit to this, as Dallas’ success rate when they slowed down and huddled up was 47%, compared to 62% when using no-huddle. That 62% when running an up-tempo offense was the fifth best in the league.
However, there is no evidence to suggest Moore started shying away from the no huddle offense. In fact, before the bye roughly 55% of the Cowboys plays involved no huddle. After the bye, that number actually rose to 64%. If anything, Moore was actually running a faster-paced offense in weeks eight through 18.
There is one aspect of Moore’s play-calling that changed, the personnel he was using. Before the bye, the Cowboys used a three-wide receiver set 55% of the time. But after the bye, Dallas was running a three-wide receiver set on 73% of plays. While this might offer some explanation for the decline in the run game, it should not be harder for Prescott to pass out of a three-wide receiver set. Moore was spreading the offense out more in the second half of the year, it just wasn’t working.
Some other aspects of the passing game that didn't change include snaps from under center versus in shotgun. Before the bye, Moore passed out of the gun 77% of the time, compared to 78% after the bye. And the schedule for the offense was not easier after the bye. Based on defensive efficiency, four of the Cowboys first six games were against “hard” defenses, but they only faced five “hard” defenses over the rest of the year.
One aspect of the game changed for the worst: who was being targeted. Because in weeks one through six, the Cowboys top three pass catchers (Dalton Schultz, Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb) were targeted on 59% of routes. After the bye, that number dropped to 47%. So if there is one thing that changed in Moore’s play-calling, it was a decreased reliance on his top weapons.
If you take away efficiency, and look at Moore’s season before and after the bye, one would think that the offense was just as successful in weeks eight through 18 as they were in weeks one through six. But obviously this was not the case. The offense was inconsistent, failed to take advantage of favorable situations, and came out flat most weeks.
Once again, this is not to let Kellen Moore off the hook. Because when the offense started to decline, there should have been a change in the offense. What worked in the first half of the season wasn’t automatically going to work in the second half. Moore didn't adapt to changing circumstances, and as a result, the offense only looked worse.
But the notion that Moore did something to the offense that caused the drop off might be misguided. Instead, he made the problem worse by trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. And here we are, three months later, still confused about what went wrong.