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Cowboys training camp: Forget the idea of running the ball more, team built for aerial attack

Even after Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy made his ‘run the ball’ comments, Dallas is looking like it will attack through the air based on roster construction and training camp.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys Training Camp Jason Parkhurst-USA TODAY Sports

You would think that by now it would be over and that people would have stopped asking, but the Dallas Cowboys are the Dallas Cowboys after all. Despite doing his best to clarify at the beginning of training camp, head coach Mike McCarthy was asked just last week about his comments from the NFL Combine about wanting to “run the damn ball” and how they related to his philosophy as the team’s offensive play-caller.

As fate would have it, comments from March are nowhere near as valuable as football activities on the training camp field in late July and early August. The latter, beyond our common sense, has taught us that Mike McCarthy has no intentions of making his Cowboys any sort of run-first operation.

And people are finally starting to take notice.

It is becoming more obvious that Dallas is going to challenge through the air

After attending training camp last week in Oxnard, I posted several takeaways that were documented right here. Other media were also there. We are deep enough into training camp across the NFL to where various national reporters have made the rounds through the marquee teams. The Cowboys are a stop for everyone and ESPN’s Dan Graziano (shout out to the NFC East days) came away from his visit to the River Ridge with something very interesting in mind.

It is worth mentioning that Graziano recently penned an overreaction/underreaction piece that took aim at those freaking out about McCarthy wanting to run the ball, but his visit seemed to justify that belief.

On Monday morning Graziano wrote about takeaways that he had from various camps and the Cowboys were obviously among them. He left Oxnard with the belief that the Cowboys will be the exact opposite of run-heavy.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know the Cowboys made a coaching change on offense this offseason, letting go of coordinator Kellen Moore, promoting Brian Schottenheimer to replace him and announcing that head coach Mike McCarthy would call the offensive plays. That means a lot of this training camp is about quarterback Dak Prescott and McCarthy getting used to each other with McCarthy in a new role. The Cowboys aren’t changing a ton of the offense, and they aren’t going to be run heavy, in spite of the external narratives.

“Look at our personnel,” one Cowboys official told me. “Do we look like we’re built to be a run-first team?”

They do not. They added wide receiver Brandin Cooks and subtracted running back Ezekiel Elliott this offseason. Tony Pollard, who projects as the lead back with Elliott gone, is a particular kind of back who excels in space and in the passing game. Never in McCarthy’s 22-year career as a head coach or offensive coordinator have his teams been run dominant, and you shouldn’t expect this one to be either.

It never made any sense for anyone to logically conclude that Dallas would prioritize running the ball and thankfully it appears that the national media is catching up to that.

Dak Prescott’s footwork appears to be a subject of great focus

Also noted in Graziano’s takeaways was the focus on the footwork of quarterback Dak Prescott. It is clear that how Dak is operating with his feet is going to be paramount to the offense’s success.

The Cowboys offense has a lot of West Coast principles and one of the greatest operators of it in NFL history was someone with tremendous footwork, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana.

That Dallas is harping on Dak’s footwork makes all the sense in the world given everything that we know, but interestingly even the wide receivers are paying intense attention to it. As explained by Jori Epstein of Yahoo Sports:

“This is the first year we’ve really had to key in on how many steps he’s taking so we know how fast the ball is coming out,” sixth-year receiver Michael Gallup told Yahoo Sports. “They harp on that every day.”

The Cowboys are shifting their offensive system more drastically than they have since Prescott earned his starting role in 2016. To say Prescott’s league-high 15 interceptions last season prompted this move would oversimplify the Cowboys’ direction. But as head coach Mike McCarthy assumes play-calling for the first time since arriving in Dallas in 2020, he’s evolving from the principles that he had allowed now-Chargers offensive coordinator Kellen Moore to maintain as they prioritized system continuity for Prescott’s development.


“I can run my routes more comfortably knowing that he’s done with his drop or that he’s not getting touched or that he’s protected,” two-time Pro Bowl receiver CeeDee Lamb told Yahoo Sports. “I feel like the speed that we have in this room, the guys that can track the ball, the mentality [will help us] get open, create separation. It just can’t be too early. Because then it’s quickening up his steps and it’s a whole different situation.


“The No. 1 mistake a receiver or skill player will make is they’re short on their route,” Schottenheimer told Yahoo Sports. “They’re open. They want the ball, they all do. So, ‘I’m going to look.’

“If a receiver doesn’t understand how many steps the quarterback is taking, then there’s no time clock in his brain.”

The difference between Prescott taking a three-step drop that will launch the ball to its target in 1.678 seconds versus a five-step drop that skews closer to 1.921, Schottenheimer gives as an example, can be the difference between a completion and interception.

Cadence and rhythm will be vital for the Cowboys to have success on offense, but also to avoid disaster in the way of turnovers that plagued the team throughout much of last season. It is clear that everyone must be on board here.

One of my takeaways was that every offensive player is continually explaining that the coaching staff is driving the “why” of each offensive detail and that they are enjoying this. Overall this idea of footwork and the understanding of it seems like something that would fall into the category of how that transcends to the game.

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