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The Dallas Cowboys and Dak Prescott need to target the middle of the field more

Mike McCarthy needs to get more aggressive in the middle of the field.

Dallas Cowboys v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images

Life is stress-free for the Dallas Cowboys, and therefore all of us, this week with America’s Team on their bye. The Cowboys have a 4-2 record to show for all of their hard work to this point, and while that is better than a lot of other records, the how of how they got here has left some fans wanting more.

Getting more specific, the Cowboys have struggled to shine on the offensive side of the ball for basically all of their six weeks of play. The defense has had moments of mortality but for the most part lived up to the preseason billing.

Ultimately this is a game where the team who scores the most points wins, and as long as those are the rules the Cowboys are going to need to make sure that they are doing all of they can to improve in that department.

Mike McCarthy ought to let Dak Prescott work the middle of the field more

The genesis for the discussion that we are having hear today came from friend of BTB, NFL Network’s Jane Slater.

Jane was on the Around The NFL podcast recapping the Monday night win over the Chargers and as the discussion hovered from the game itself to the Cowboys as a whole, the lack of offensive firepower took center stage. Slater brought up something interesting - whether or not the way that Mike McCarthy is calling plays is geared towards mitigating the damage from interceptions given how many Dak Prescott threw last year.

“I reached out to somebody and I’ve asked them if some of this play-calling lately... is it a concerted effort to eliminate some of the interceptions last year. They didn’t want to comment on that. It was sort of one of those ‘No, that’s not the case, blah blah blah,’ but for all of us watching it we can’t help but ask that question. I think it’s a fair question.”

While some of it was in a national-media-going-over-the-top sort of way, Dak’s interceptions were obviously one of the bigger talking points around what the Cowboys did (and did not do) in 2022. We can (and have done so) properly “excuse” some of them on this, that or the other, but at the end of the day they happened.

But interceptions are inevitable so to speak and ultimately the goal entering 2023 should have been to get better, not necessarily to throw fewer interceptions. In terms of understanding Slater’s point just a bit it is helpful to re-look at Prescott’s overall form in 2022. Shout out to Next Gen Stats for the assistance here.

Next Gen Stats

As we can see the middle of the field, a bit further down the field specifically, was noticeably worse for Prescott than anything else. He was well-below league average in those areas.

It would stand to reason that someone, let’s hypothetically say the person calling the Cowboys plays this season that spent an offseason working on that, could have looked at this and decided that Dak targeting the middle of the field might not be in his or the team’s best interest. Right? Right.

The NFL makes this information a bit difficult to find publicly, but if we take a look at Dak’s passing charts from NGS over the course of each game of the season so far we can see that there is a bit of an aversion from the middle of the field.

We can get a bit loose with what we define as the “middle” of the field if we are just looking at the charts so understand that I am generalizing a bit here and going with things hovering near the hash marks. We are also going to count anything and everything past the line of scrimmage. With that being said, here is Dak Prescott’s middle of field (MOF) usage so far this season based off of our own tabulations.

  • Week 1 at NYG: 4 for 6
  • Week 2 vs. NYJ: 0 for 1 (you could maybe say 1 for 2)
  • Week 3 at ARI: 0 for 2 with an interception
  • Week 4 vs. NE: 4 for 6
  • Week 5 at SF: 4 for 6
  • Week 6 at LAC: 5 for 5

As we have said many times over the last month and a half, the Cowboys have played in some blowouts and therefore the tenor of games has been impacted by them. Monday night against the Los Angeles Chargers was the first instance that required 10 full rounds so to speak.

It is certainly worth mentioning as well that prior to the San Francisco game that Dallas had a rotating cast of offensive linemen which impacts Dak’s ability to stay centered and target anywhere specific. Incidentally he was under quite a bit of duress on Monday night and floated out of the pocket a lot and dropped his best MOF performance so far this season.

Now we are over 800 words in at this point and have not mentioned that the play-caller here is doing everything he can to make the current Dallas Cowboys offense be one of a West Coast variety. Obviously the West Coast system is heavily predicated on getting the ball out quickly which is why Prescott is firing rapidly so often outside in the name of hitting receivers with space to work. So this information is hardly shocking.

But whether or not there is an version towards the middle of the field based on Prescott’s numbers from last year, the middle can and should be targeted on routes like quick slants with players like CeeDee Lamb and Brandin Cooks given their ability to separate and win. The Cowboys cannot reasonably expect to build sustainable offense by just trying to go outside over and over and over again.

For what it’s worth, there are many a great quarterback who have insisted on working on the outside and avoiding the middle of the field. Our friends at Acme Packing Co. had an incredible write-up on Aaron Rodgers’ aversion to the middle of the field, keep in mind this was written in 2020 offseason after Rodgers’ first full season without Mike McCarthy.

While it was three and a half years ago that write-up referenced a study that showed how easy it was for quarterbacks to have success over the middle of the field based off of the 2018 regular season.

SOURCE: Extracting NFL Tracking Data from Images to Evaluate Quarterbacks and Pass Defenses, 2019

This was five years ago so a lot has changed in terms of how both offenses and defenses play in the NFL, but this is hardly the 1960s that we are comparing things to. The middle of the field is a place worth attacking (or at least worth considering attacking) which means the Cowboys ought to start leaning into it a bit more.

In a given week what the Cowboys are trying to do is largely based on matchups so it is not fair to throw out any sort of blanket declaration and say that they should do this or that on a permanent basis; however, we have six weeks worth of games to prove that the offense needs a bit of an adjustment to kick it into a higher gear. Perhaps this is that.

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