One of the more dominating storylines this offseason for the Cowboys has been their offense and the changes being made with head coach Mike McCarthy taking over play-calling. Brian Schottenheimer has replaced Kellen Moore, and Mike Solari has replaced Joe Philbin coaching the offensive line, filling the same role he held in Seattle when Schottenheimer ran the offense there.
McCarthy, Schottenheimer, and Solari have been rather tight-lipped on exactly what they’re changing, though we’ve gotten a pretty good idea from training camp practices and the preseason. It’s a mix of what the team was already doing, conceptually speaking, under Moore, and the principles of the West Coast offense that McCarthy has always run.
Dubbed the Texas Coast offense by Dak Prescott, the differences have already been noticed. Receivers are running more slant and flat routes while being asked to time their route running to the quarterback’s feet. The quarterbacks are also getting the ball out quicker, a central tenet of the West Coast.
Schottenheimer has said that they’re keeping roughly 70% of what Moore had been running, while McCarthy said most of their changes had to do with pass protection. Until recently, it wasn’t immediately clear what that meant, but now we have a better idea.
In a recent sit-down interview with David Moore of the Dallas Morning News, both McCarthy and Schottenheimer dished some details about the biggest thing they changed with this offense: the pass protection scheme.
There are two fundamental starting points on protection. You either belong to the pocket family or the slide family. The Cowboys scheme had been something of a bastardized version of the two but more closely aligned with pocket protection.
McCarthy believes in slide protection. Part of him wanted to make a clean, philosophical break and throw out the pocket concepts the linemen had been working under.
“That was probably the biggest conversation early,’’ McCarthy said.
“For sure,’’ Schottenheimer said.
“I was like to hell with it, let’s just go back to the beginning,’’ McCarthy said. “Let’s teach. It will be better rehearsed. But in the short-term, we didn’t have the time we would have liked to have had.’’
For those that are unfamiliar, pocket protection is most commonly associated with a man blocking scheme. Also referred to as BOB (big on big; backer on blitzer), pocket protection schemes generally assign one offensive lineman to block one defensive lineman, and so on and so forth, with the running back staying in to pick up any blitzer (unless the play calls for them to go out for a pass).
In pocket protection, the goal is for the line to establish the quarterback’s passing pocket. Generally, this is done by the interior linemen being charged with setting the depth of the pocket while the tackles set the width of the pocket. In traditional pocket protection schemes, the interior linemen try to stay as close to the line of scrimmage as possible while tackles try to kick out as much as possible, giving the quarterback ample room to move around in the pocket.
Slide protection, on the other hand, is most commonly associated with zone blocking schemes. Fundamentally, a slide protection scheme asks linemen to take one gap on the line of scrimmage and protect it, rather than focusing on individual players. Slide protection schemes are less obsessed with creating depth in the pocket and more with moving the pocket laterally one way or the other.
There are advantages and weaknesses to both approaches, of course, and it appears the Cowboys have mixed the two for quite some time. Slide protection benefits a more mobile quarterback, specifically one that excels at throwing on the run. This is one of Prescott’s better features, so it makes a lot of sense for him.
It’s also advantageous in terms of making things simpler for the individual linemen. In a league where blitzing and stunting is becoming more common, having linemen just focus on their zone makes it easier to pass off defenders in that scenario. Of course, it also requires having five offensive linemen be in sync with one another, and injuries can throw off the entire unit’s groove.
Dallas is making the switch to a slide protection scheme, though, choosing to commit to just one approach rather than balance between the two. It’s the same kind of approach Schottenheimer and Solari ran together in Seattle, and the early results have been positive.
That’s why Mike Solari was hired to coach the offensive line. He had worked with McCarthy and Schottenheimer in previous stops and would be integral in teaching the new techniques.
There was some initial hesitation on McCarthy’s part that he and Schottenheimer had changed too much. Those concerns subsided when he saw how fast and clean this group practiced from the start.
One player after another in this camp have talked about the simplicity of the system. McCarthy and Schottenheimer exchange a look of satisfaction before McCarthy states that in terms of volume of offensive scheme around the league, the Cowboys are still at the upper end of the scale.