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Weapons, schmeapons, Dak Prescott is the missing ingredient in making the Cowboys offense work

While everyone is playing the blame game, the Cowboys answers to fixing the offense might be closer than we realize.

NFC Divisional Playoffs - Dallas Cowboys v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys are off to a great start in free agency as they are checking off all of the boxes this offseason. So far, they have:

  • Re-signed some key defensive players
  • Tagged one of their most explosive offensive weapons
  • Traded for a proven veteran outside corner
  • Traded for an elite separating receiver with home run speed

We are only a week into the offseason and it’s hard not to be pleased with the moves this team has made so far.

One of the biggest complaints entering the offseason was how the Cowboys absolutely must improve their wide receiver room. While some had big eyes for players like Odell Beckham Jr., DeAndre Hopkins, or Jerry Jeudy, the craving appears to be met by the trade to acquire former Texans’ WR Brandin Cooks.

The Cowboys are primed for a strong season in 2023 as Dak Prescott now has a fighting chance. But while help is certainly welcomed, what if that’s not the factor holding this team back? There are a few elements to all this to discuss that suggest making a move for a big-name receiver might not be the answer we’re looking for.

Question #1: Was trading away Amari Cooper a mistake?

This ordeal is baffling. On one hand, Cooper has quietly been a great receiver in this league and the Cowboys gave up a lot to get him, so why would they part ways with him? The only way this would make sense is if the team didn’t feel that Cooper’s contributions, while still a talented player, were worth his $20 million yearly cost.

Cooper was shipped to Cleveland and went on to have a better season with the Browns than he did during his last year in Dallas.

How should we explain this occurrence? There are four possible answers and they are as follows:

  1. The Cowboys coaches weren’t calling as many plays for Cooper.
  2. Dak Prescott just wasn’t looking Cooper’s way as often.
  3. Cooper quit on the Cowboys.
  4. Dak just wasn’t playing all that well.

We all have our own theories and the answer isn’t clear, but if it’s 1, 2, or 3, then we shouldn’t be too critical of the front office for moving on from him. Talented or not, if he’s not an instrumental part of the offense whether it’s from a coaching decision, Dak, or Cooper himself, then they shouldn’t be using so much cap space for him.

Dak Prescott is a good quarterback, so let’s disregard 4 for a moment (we’ll get to that in a bit), but if one truly believes Cooper should’ve never been traded away, then there must be some non-Cooper-related reasons for the offense to falter down the stretch of the 2021 season. Which brings us to...

QUESTION #2: Was Kellen Moore holding this offense back?

This is another puzzling one. There has been a lot of praise for Moore throughout most of his time in Dallas as the offensive coordinator. But this love has been few and far between lately and it’s turned to outright hate as the Cowboys once again came up short this past season.

While it’s not always clear who’s at fault when a play breaks down, fans have just defaulted to blaming Moore as he’s the latest scapegoat. That seems a little disingenuous considering the Cowboys' offense has been second in points scored and second in total yards during the four years with Moore as OC. They were eighth in EPA and have finished in the top 10 in EPA every year he’s been the coordinator. The Cowboys are third in total first downs and tied for sixth in total offensive touchdowns.

And before people start proclaiming, “well, that’s just all Dak,” it’s worth noting that Prescott has missed time in each of the last three seasons that has totaled 17 games (25%) during Moore’s tenure. Not just that, but the team has battled injuries along the offensive line that amounts to significant time missed by Tyron Smith (36 games), La’el Collins (23 games), Zack Martin (7 games), and Terence Steele (5 games). And if that’s not enough of a disadvantage, the Cowboys supposedly are severely lacking in offensive weapons and Moore has had to game plan using Noah Brown, an ailing Michael Gallup, and a slew of other receivers who were practically non-existent. Did we mention that Ezekiel Elliott’s yards per carry have been on a downward spiral?

Considering all these factors working against Kellen Moore, he sure performed an impressive magic act to produce such impressive offensive numbers during his time in Dallas. But oh well, like Cooper before him, the Cowboys have moved on from him and he’s now employed by an AFC team. So, that leaves us with the final question...

QUESTION #3: Are Prescott’s inconsistencies the root of the problem?

When Prescott, Cooper, and Moore all worked together for the first time, the Cowboys' offense took off. They had the most yards in the NFL and finished with the best offensive DVOA in the NFC in 2019. But as great as things started, it went south in a hurry.

The 2020 ankle injury ended Prescott’s season after just five games. Dak came back the following year and looked outstanding until he suffered a calf injury midway through the 2021 season. There was a noticeable difference in his performance (EPA per game data below courtesy of nflfastr) pre- and post-injury.

Photo courtesy of NFLFastR

Last year, Prescott again missed action, this time with a thumb injury. While there was no noticeable pre-injury/post-injury split, there was a pretty good Dak-played-well/Cowboys win correlation (EPA per game data below courtesy of nflfastr).

Photo courtesy of NFLFastR

Whenever Prescott had a positive EPA, the Cowboys almost never lost. They were 8-1 on the year in those games with the lone loss being against the Jacksonville Jaguars, a game the Cowboys should have won.

This is both comforting and concerning. It tells us that the Cowboys just need Prescott to play well to win. The defense around him is strong and the offensive pieces around him are also good enough because the team almost never loses when Prescott does his job.

The concern comes from the inconsistency in Prescott’s play. He can go from really great to really terrible from one game to the next like he did in the playoffs last year. Adding another weapon should help, I mean, it’s gotta, right? But the Cowboys already had weapons when Cooper was on the team and it didn’t matter if Dak wasn’t playing well. Conversely, the “Kellen handicap” or lack of offensive weapons also didn’t seem to be as much of an issue last year when Prescott was performing well.

Enough with the “(enter head coach’s name here) is wasting Dak’s best years” or the “Kellen Moore is awful” or the “what do you expect with so few weapons” proclamations. There are no more excuses. Dak’s got to go out there and do Dak things. He’s a great quarterback, but he wasn’t playing great at times these past couple of years. For the Cowboys to have any chance at a deep postseason run, Prescott needs to clean up some things and deliver when it matters. That’s the solution.

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