Camp Goal 1: Moore Must Steal From McVay to Make The Dak-Lamb Connection Golden

There are a great many things that need to be accomplished in camp to get the Cowboys offense retooled and ready for this season. It is my contention that stealing McVay’s magic as it relates to the role of the WR1 in the offense should be the number one goal.

There are number of ways to identify a WR1 in an offense. Most commonly, you look at who is contributing the most yards. For Dallas, even though they were paying Amari Cooper to be their WR1, CeeDee Lamb became that guy last season, which is part of reason Cooper is gone. Part.

But another way to look at what a WR1 should be is to see if he is efficiently moving the chains for your team while being targeted a great deal.

Below, I have put together a list of the top 15 high-target receivers in terms of 1st down percentage. My cutoff for the list is 115+ targets. I did this because it helps us to dial in on the receivers that are the engine of their offense. The guys that carry the load. If there can be a bell cow WR, these guys are that.

High Target, High First Down Percentage

  1. Davante Adams: 169 T, 84 1stD, 49.7%
  2. Tyreek Hill: 159 T, 75 1stD, 47.2%
  3. Cooper Kupp: 191 T, 89 1stD, 46.6%
  4. CeeDee Lamb: 120 T, 54 1stD, 45%
  5. Justin Jefferson: 167 T, 75 1stD, 44.9%
  6. Ja’Marr Chase: 128 T, 56 1stD, 43.8%
  7. Chris Goodwin: 127T, 55 1st, 43.3%
  8. Deebo Samuel: 121 T, 51 1st, 42.1%
  9. Jaylen Waddle: 140 T, 59 1st, 42.1%
  10. Keenan Allen: 157 T, 66 1st, 42.0%
  11. Michael Pittman: 129 T, 54 1st, 41.9%
  12. Amon-Ra St. Brown: 119 T, 48 1st, 40.3%
  13. Stefon Diggs, 164 T, 64 1st, 40.2%
  14. Hunter Renfrow, 128 T, 51 1st, 39.8%
  15. Mike Williams, 129T, 51 1st, 39.5%

Obviously, maintaining a high 1st down percentage is much harder when you’re a high-target receiver. As offenses are currently constructed, if you’re targeted a great deal you’re likely getting a healthy dose of screens to go along with your downfield routes. Screens are substitutes for runs and a way to attack the perimeter, but they put a heavy burden on the WR to make a lot out of a little. So, for these gents to make this list, they have to be truly elite and certainly the names bear that out.

Cowboys fans should feel pretty stoked about CeeDee Lamb being fourth on that list in terms of 1st down percentage. His targets will likely jump over 140, perhaps over 160 this year. If he’s maintaining that percentage, it will go a long way toward filling the hole left by Cooper and Wilson. The key will be for Moore to retool his scheme to make it so. More on that later.

Looking at the list above, Adams and Hill had the benefit of extraordinary arm talent getting them the ball last year (Rodgers and Mahomes), both will have lesser QBs this season. The Stafford-Kupp connection is also clearly elite, with Stafford showing in one season that he was a championship QB, as was expected when he was drafted all those years ago. He just needed a franchise that understood how to assemble a championship team.

A word about Kupp: we see on this list that some receivers had astonishingly high targets, but none more so than him. He nearly topped 200 targets last year and still converted first downs on nearly 47% of his receptions. Insane.

Kupp and Stafford deserve all the credit in the world for what they accomplished in just one season together. The only way that happens is through countless hours of practice, developing the chemistry and timing.

But we also need to look to McVay. McVay’s scheme created the ecosystem in which this symbiotic relationship flourished. (Be honest, you weren’t expecting to read a sentence like that when you visited BTB today. You’re welcome.)

If you’re like me, one of the things that drove you nuts during the long, boring tenure of Jason Garrett was that offenses around the league were creatively evolving and Garrett stubbornly kept with his own Turner-esque system. This was a big relief to the rest of the NFC East, which had figured him out years ago. Garrett could have simply stolen massively from the Patriots or Saints and been heralded as an offensive genius, but his pride wouldn’t allow it.

Kellen Moore must not make that same mistake. Dallas needs Moore to steal from McVay. Not necessarily everything, but definitely the tactics that allow him to get the ball to his number one WR despite every defense trying to take him away.

And McVay does this at the highest level. Kupp was isolated on linebackers more often than any other receiver in the league last year. That is some Jedi-level mastery on McVay’s part. Every team you face says "Job one: take away Kupp" and instead they end up trying to cover him with a linebacker on key plays. (How do I know they were key plays? Any time Cooper Kupp is being covered by a linebacker, it’s a key play).

So how does that happen? Kupp is moved around and ends up playing in the slot a good deal of the time, with at least two other receivers going into routes as well. Let’s say he starts out wide but then motions into the slot, trading places with another receiver. Depending upon the defense’s package, that can be enough to get him on a linebacker or at least a lesser CB. At times Kupp lines up in the backfield, one of the oldest tactics in the book, right? Still works. Worked beautifully several times last year. And of course, there is far more to it than that.

It’s easy to say, "If I’m defending the Rams, I’m putting my top CB on Kupp the entire game and I’m giving extra safety help." Do you think McVay doesn’t have a plan to shred a defense for trying to do that on every possession?

I won’t pretend I have the football IQ to explain in detail how McVay can destroy teams for committing too much to stop Kupp, but he obviously possesses that ability. Otherwise teams wouldn’t allow situations to arise where they were trying to cover Kupp with a freaking linebacker. They would always have their top CB on him if they could get away with it.

Moore is fully capable of figuring out what McVay is up to and implementing it. And I will go further and say that this should be Moore’s number one directive this season. Everything else, like getting Pollard more touches, getting production from the rookie Tolbert, fitting Washington into the system—all of those things, which are also tremendously important—must come second to stealing McVay’s cheat codes for his WR1.

Dak Prescott—CeeDee Lamb is the primary engine that will drive the Cowboys offense this year. Not Pollard or Zeke or Schultz or Gallup. All those players are important, but make no mistake, Lamb is the Cowboys Kupp.

It seemed that Moore was content to run his scheme last year as an equal opportunity employer of wide outs (and one that ignored merit-based opportunities for running backs not named Zeke). With the departure of Amari Cooper and Cedric Wilson, this team can no longer afford to take that approach.

In the aftermath of Dallas’ playoff debacle against the 49ers, Troy Aikman, who never tolerated underperformance by anyone associated with his offense, stated very pointedly,

"The game is not that difficult. If I’ve got a great player at wide receiver and a corner is playing him in single coverage, throw him the ball. He’s going to win most of the time," Aikman said.

"San Francisco rushed four guys, for the most part. They blitzed occasionally. But they’re a four-man rush football team. But a lot of times when you say that, then you think they’re playing coverage. They mixed in some coverage, but there was a lot of single coverage on CeeDee Lamb."

"I hate going back to (when I was playing) because nobody cares, but what I see around the league, it’s not just Dallas. I’ve seen it with a lot of teams, a lot of these offenses want to scheme things. The coordinators, it’s all about scheme, rather than ‘This corner is playing soft. He’s scared to death. Just run the route tree. Run a comeback. Run a dig route. Run a curl. Run anything.’ You’re going to complete the pass whenever you want."

Aikman’s comments point to the other aspect of getting your best weapon the ball. I’ve talked at length about scheme and how I want Moore to steal from McVay, but the other piece is what Aikman is getting at. In the flow of any game, the QB should feel free to talk to his best weapon and just get the job done, based upon what the defense is doing. Michael Irvin would always come up to Aikman and tell him the moment he saw a weakness in how he was being covered. Also from Aikman,

"(Michael Irvin) would've had 10 catches at halftime if they played us the way they played CeeDee Lamb in that game."

I would say this is 1b as far as what I want Moore to accomplish with this offense. Not just Moore, this should come from McCarthy as well. They should emphasize clarity and simplicity in this passing attack. What I mean by that is not to dumb down the scheme or take away bells and whistles. I mean that Dak should be told repeatedly that its his responsibility to get Lamb the ball and if the two of them need to make adjustments on the fly to get that done, by all means, do that.

This team will miss Cooper and Wilson this season, I don’t mean to imply with what follows that they wont. But Dallas does have an opportunity to clarify their identity as on offense for 2022. 2021 showed that having three and four dangerous WRs to distribute to based on who had the most favorable coverage was a great way to rack up points and yards—until the Fangio shell virus spread wildly through the league about mid-season. Right about the time Dak was struggling to return from his calf strain, finding the open WR got far more difficult. Teams were starting in the two-high shell at the snap and then morphing post snap into zones designed to take away their opponents favorite stuff. It wasn’t just Dallas dealing with this, even the Rams fell into an offensive slump.

If we go even deeper, we find that defenses have pretty much taken away the deep shots that had made up a majority of Stafford’s explosive passes over the first two months. As The Ringer’s Ben Solak found after the 49ers loss, defenses had stopped blitzing Stafford, opting instead to drop into deeper zone coverages and forcing him to take shorter options underneath. As a result, Stafford’s average depth of target on shotgun passes has cratered even while his average time to throw has increased.

It’s a phenomenon we’re seeing around the league. The Chiefs and Bills are the most notable examples, but those teams are seeing more two-high zone coverages as a counter to their deep passing concepts. Interestingly, defenses are taking the opposite approach with the Rams and dropping only one safety deep in the middle of the field and getting more bodies in the intermediate areas.

But the Rams were always very clear on who their WR1 was and prioritized getting it to him. 191 targets makes that pretty obvious. Dak had a more nebulous scheme to command and some combination of blame between Moore, Dak and McCarthy allowed them to lose the thread of the most basic of basic football goals: get the damn ball to your best weapon.

The Rams eventually figured things out, emerged from their slump and won it all. On their final, game winning drive in the Super Bowl, facing fourth and one at their own 29 yard line, the Rams handed the ball off to Kupp, not a running back. He picked up the first down. Then he and Stafford marched the field, connecting on several passes, drawing a defensive holding on a linebacker (yes, even in the Super Bowl, they we were still getting Kupp on linebackers) and also a pass interference on Eli Apple, who simply couldn’t cover Kupp when it mattered. And then the game winning reception in the end zone for Kupp, torching Apple once again. A 16-play drive, almost entirely Kupp, because McVay and Mathews understood that he was their most potent weapon and deployed correctly, he couldn’t be stopped.

Yes, Dallas lost key players in the offseason. But Dallas is fortunate to have their Kupp-like weapon in place. Lamb is a chess piece that can be moved all over the offense. He is already converting first downs at nearly the same rate as Kupp. He has surprising strength and great open-field moves. Now Dallas just needs Moore to steal every tactic in McVay’s book to get Lamb the ball.

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