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Cowboys gambling they’ll improve by parting with Kellen Moore

The Cowboys are taking a big risk by parting with a coach who has seen considerable success in his tenure.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants
This relationship may have been a source of friction.
Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys are about to find out about the shade of the lawn next door. You know, that grass that’s always greener? They have parted ways with offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. Moore’s performance in Dallas was so disappointing that it took him less than 24 hours to get snatched up by the Los Angeles Chargers, who were given permission even before the “mutually agreed” termination to interview Moore.

Sometimes these decisions seem very easy to make. Bad records or performance certainly justify making changes. And it is simpler to change coaches than it is players. The byzantine rules of the salary cap may hold costs down for owners and prevent rich franchises from building super rosters, but it also ties the teams to players with big contracts. There is no dead money when a coach is shown the door.

In many cases, entire coaching staffs are kicked due to failure on the field. Replacing coordinators is, especially in the case of the Cowboys, about improving a team that already has some serious strengths. The past two seasons were hard to call failures with 12-5 records and some impressive aggregate offensive stats and analytic numbers. That is very good for the regular season. Dallas ran into a roadblock in the playoffs each year called the San Francisco 49ers, and that is the issue they are attempting to solve by the divorce from Moore. In both those January defeats, the offense just sputtered, something it also did in some games late in both of those seasons. Part of the blame is placed on quarterback Dak Prescott, who did play poorly in those games. But as discussed, the team is not moving on from him anytime soon. Cutting him would result in a minimum dead money cost of $49 million this year.

There is an argument to be made that Moore did not always use his quarterback properly. Prescott seems to be at his best using play-action and rollouts. Motion, both before and at the snap, were effective for him. For unclear reasons, those seemed to be used less in both the losses to the 49ers and in some of the other games when the Cowboys struggled late in the past two seasons. The problems also seemed to extend beyond that. There was a real emphasis on the run despite having a lead back that may still be affected by his 2021 injury and definitely is getting to running back middle age. Too many times Dallas would face second and nine or longer because a first-down run play went absolutely nowhere.

That seems to hearken back to Moore’s roots as a product of the Jason Garrett/Scott Linehan era. Although Moore was elevated to replace Linehan when he was sent packing due to offensive issues, there are often signs that Moore still feels that influence. One specific criticism when Linehan was the OC was third-down passing plays where all the receivers would just kind of go to the sticks and wait for the ball. It simplifies things for the defense and often fails. And sure enough, it came up in the San Francisco loss.

This is just too easy for a defense to diagnose. In a time when other teams are using complicated and creative route combinations to boost their passing game, there were just too many times Moore fell back on simple, boring ideas.

It is also looking like this is a general housecleaning for the offense, as RB coach Skip Peete, QB coach Doug Nussmeier, and OL coach Joe Philbin are also gone. Given the issues faced last year, those are not surprising decisions, although a lot of things stemmed from the failure of the ownership to properly staff the offesnvie line and wide receiver groups. But Jerry Jones is not going to replace himself or his son Stephen, so once again the onus falls on the coaches.

Mike McCarthy is going to assume play-calling duties going forward. He still is going to need an offensive coordinator to help assemble the scheme and the playbook he will be working with. McCarthy has two years remaining on his contract, and it seems obvious that he is not going to get another unless the Cowboys can break through to at least the conference championship game. Firing Moore and getting more involved in the offense is a way for McCarthy to have more control over his own fate.

There is another side to this. When McCarthy was hired, he retained Moore as a carryover from the Garrett regime. McCarthy always said that was his decision, which seems a tad less than fully honest. It has always been suspected that the heavy hand of Jerry Jones was involved in that, and retaining Moore may have been a precondition of McCarthy’s hire. We’ll never know the full story here, but at this point, McCarthy may have more control over his staff than he ever has. This makes all this more about his future than about Moore’s merits and liabilities. If it is true that Moore was forced or really strongly pushed as McCarthy’s OC, then the head coach may have just been looking for an excuse to make this move.

That makes sense. McCarthy’s first year was a total mess, and the abject failure of the defense made that the priority. Dan Quinn proved to be an effective solution at DC in 2021, and the offense had a good year despite the slump during the latter games of the regular season and the quick exit from the playoffs. Moore’s offense put up good numbers. There was just no justification to make a move then.

2022 saw some very similar numbers but also very similar results. Stagnation was never the goal, no matter that they were still a playoff team, and not just the kind that sneaks in at the end. Quinn’s defense had some issues for a while, but regained their footing and looked good in the playoffs. The main failure was the offense. Much of that was a really bad game by Prescott, but there were clearly issues with Moore as well.

He was pushed out, but landed on his feet in an excellent situation and may see this all lead to a head coaching job in the near future, if he can get numbers out of Justin Herbert the way he did with Prescott. The Cowboys hope they will get better at the same time.

Unfortunately, that is a bit of a gamble. There is an excellent chance things go downhill. It depends on how the new staff comes together and McCarthy’s own play-calling skills. He had some really good years doing it with the Green Bay Packers, but lost that job because of a couple of bad years at the end. A lot depends on what the ownership does this offseason to shore up the offensive line depth and fill out the receiving corps. They failed to do a good job at that last year, and that limitation really hurt Moore’s ability to perform.

This may work, but it may well not. Many coaching terminations are an exercise in scapegoating. With the way Moore barely had time to contemplate being unemployed, this is one where the scapegoat may end up laughing. How happy the Cowboys wind up is very much an open question.

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