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4 areas of the Cowboys offense Mike McCarthy can improve from Kellen Moore

Kellen Moore did some things well, but there is room for Mike McCarthy to improve

Dallas Cowboys v Washington Commanders Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

In case you missed it, offensive coordinator Kellen Moore is out in Dallas after four years calling plays for the offense. Head coach Mike McCarthy will take over the calling of plays, something he’s done at length in the past.

Moving on from Moore is a big risk, given how good his offenses were each year, but McCarthy comes with a sizable advantage in terms of sheer experience. He probably already has a list of things he wants to work on, but these four areas for improvement would address Moore’s biggest weaknesses as a coordinator.

Use of play-action and pre-snap motion

Two ways that coaches can make things easier on their quarterbacks - and, by extension, the entire offense - is integrating lots of play-action passing concepts and using pre-snap motion at a high rate.

Play-action is helpful because of the way it sucks defenses up on the run fake, and it can buy quarterbacks just a little extra time in the pocket regardless of the quality of their pass protection. Pre-snap motion can be used to diagnose a defense’s coverage before the snap, as well as giving pass catchers an added boost in creating separation. ESPN breaks down the utility of motion very well, and they differentiate between general motion and motion that has a man moving at the time of the snap.

Play Action and Motion Under Kellen Moore

Play Action Rank Motion Rank Motion at the Snap Rank
Play Action Rank Motion Rank Motion at the Snap Rank
2019 7th 12th 16th
2020 12th 11th 28th
2021 14th 18th 31st
2022 13th 17th 16th

As we can see, Moore’s first season in command of the offense saw the team using both tools at an extremely high rate. Coincidentally, the Cowboys finished that year second in offensive DVOA, their highest such placement in Moore’s tenure.

Then, for some reason, Moore significantly dialed back in both areas the very next year, and never really returned to either at the same level again. It’s unclear why this decision was made, but it does help explain the variance in offensive production since then. It’s also worth noting that Dak Prescott has been an incredibly effective quarterback on play-action throughout his career.

Dak Prescott on Play Action

Completion Percentage Touchdowns Interceptions Passer Rating Passer Rating Rank
Completion Percentage Touchdowns Interceptions Passer Rating Passer Rating Rank
2016 76.1% 6 0 124.4 1st
2017 59.6% 8 1 104.5 10th
2018 68.6% 7 2 104.8 12th
2019 69.8% 9 5 103.4 12th
2021 70.4% 13 2 113.3 6th
2022 65.9% 9 1 108.9 5th

The 2020 season is not included here, since Prescott only played five games that year. Still, Andy Dalton ended up ranking eighth in passer rating on play-action plays that year, a testament to how much it can help quarterbacks out.

For McCarthy, play-action and motion were staples of his offense early on in his career. He phased both tools out early on in his Packers tenure at the request of Aaron Rodgers, but McCarthy has always seen value in them. Now that he’s taking over the offense, and working with a quarterback who thrives on play-action passing plays, there isn’t really an excuse to not see an uptick in usage of these two concepts.

More passing on early downs

Another way of making life easy on a quarterback is to call passing plays on early downs, when defenses tend to expect running plays instead. This ends up catching defenses off guard, and often in poor position to properly defend against a pass play. For example, Prescott’s 0.166 EPA/play on first and second down throughout his career is greater than his 0.144 EPA/play on all downs. That trend holds pretty firm across the board, as well.

The issue for Prescott, though, is he doesn’t get to throw on early downs all that much. His first three years in the league, when Scott Linehan was calling the plays, Prescott had the fifth fewest plays on early downs of any team. It got better under Moore, as the Cowboys called passing plays on early downs at the 15th highest rate over his four seasons as coordinator. Still, though, the Cowboys can easily aim higher.

McCarthy’s tenure as the play-caller for the Packers is the ideal. From 2010 to 2018, which includes the 2015 season when McCarthy wasn’t calling plays, the Packers led the NFL in early down pass rate. It’s no coincidence that Rodgers was third in EPA/play on early downs during that span; the offense as a whole was also second in EPA/play on all downs over that time.

Just like with play-action and pre-snap motion, McCarthy’s time in Green Bay demonstrated a clear understanding of the value of throwing on early downs. Prescott has proven to be effective in those situations as well, and McCarthy should oversee an uptick in early down passing rate now that he’s calling plays.

Higher variance of routes run

Perhaps the most valid criticism of Moore is that his play design and selection became stale and predictable in the most critical of times. The creativity that Moore often shined with throughout his tenure in Dallas seemed to melt away under the intensity of the moment, instead seeing the coordinator draw up a play that either sent all of his receivers deep or had them all run short curl routes.

This was especially evident in both of the Cowboys’ playoff losses to the 49ers, as the San Francisco defense simply sat on the underneath routes all day. Prescott only attempted 10 passes all game that traveled 10 yards or more beyond the line of scrimmage; he completed just three of them, with two being completions of 15 yards along the sideline. The 49ers dared Dallas to test them deep, and Moore refused to try them out.

McCarthy’s offense - rooted in the West Coast schemes of lore - is predicated on beating defenses with quick, short passes until they open themselves up to the deep shots. In other words, the 49ers defense is exactly what McCarthy would pray for, peppering their shallow zones with a litany of shot plays and 50/50 balls, the type of play Prescott has generally been great at throughout his career.

Just from a general perspective, too, McCarthy has been calling plays longer than Moore. Thus, he should have a better feel for different ways of counteracting the different defenses he’d run into, something Moore had yet to master. Having a play-caller who knows when to switch up the types of routes he’s calling can be a valuable asset, and it would be one major step forward in Dallas.

Intentionality with the use of tight ends

Tight ends have morphed into a sort of cheat code in the NFL as of late, with more and more tight ends entering the NFL as pass-catching weapons first and foremost. This has allowed the most creative offensive minds to effectively use them as an additional receiver when it comes to route combinations.

The challenge for defenses, then, becomes how to guard them. If a defensive coordinator simply assigns a safety or corner to try and take them out on passing plays, then the offense can switch to a run play in which the tight end almost always has a favorable matchup as a run blocker. But if the defensive coordinator assigns linebackers to the tight end, they’re much more susceptible to getting beat in coverage.

Of course, this all stems from how a team uses their tight ends. They have to be featured as a pass catcher enough for defenses to find themselves in such a conundrum. That was rarely the case for the Cowboys this year despite having an embarrassment of riches at the position.

Dalton Schultz was coming off a career year, which led to him being franchise tagged. Schultz is one of the better blocking tight ends in the NFL, and he had just emerged as a legitimate pass-catching threat. Injuries throughout the year complicated his usage, but Schultz still finished second on the team in targets, catches, yards, and touchdowns.

Behind Schultz, though, there was potential for much more. Rookies Jake Ferguson and Peyton Hendershot showed flashes of brilliance as pass catchers, and the Cowboys used both 12 (one running back, two tight ends) and 13 personnel (one running back, three tight ends) at some of the highest rates in the NFL this past year.

Yet Dallas almost exclusively ran out of those formation groupings. Ferguson played on 40% of all offensive snaps this season, but 74.6% of his snaps came as a blocker; similarly, Hendershot played on 26% of offensive snaps and was blocking on 61.6% of those snaps. Ferguson finished the season with 22 targets and Hendershot had 16 targets. Both tight ends recorded more yards after the catch per reception than Schultz, and Ferguson was actually second on the team behind Tony Pollard.

The fact that the duo of Ferguson and Hendershot went so underutilized this season is a major disappointment considering how often they were actually on the field. The Cowboys could have had a three-headed monster between Schultz, Ferguson, and Hendershot with the ability each of them showed in the passing game, in addition to doing good work as blockers.

Going into next season, Ferguson and Hendershot will definitely be back, while Schultz’s status is up in the air as he prepares for free agency. Still, a more intentional game plan when it comes to the usage of tight ends would provide a serious boost to the creativity and flexibility of this offense. McCarthy has a long list of tight ends who thrived under him in Green Bay - Jermichael Finley, Andrew Quarless, Donald Lee, Richard Rodgers, Jared Cook, Martellus Bennett, Jimmy Graham, and Robert Tonyan, just to name a few - and he should be able to properly integrate the position into the offense in Dallas in a way Moore never quite managed to do.

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