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Sturm: The Morning After - Cowboys trounce Giants with a symphony of offensive brilliance

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  • Sturm: The Morning After - Cowboys trounce Giants with a symphony of offensive brilliance


    By Bob Sturm Sep 9, 2019

    When you wait for something for as long as the Cowboys have waited for an offensive facelift, you sometimes doubt its very arrival. It was easy to believe the search for offensive creativity and a hint of tactical superiority was a fool’s errand; it may exist outside of this locale, but surely could not be acquired within. You look longingly around the league wondering what the true secret of offensive production must be and then ram another inside run right into a mass of humanity for 2.7 yards.

    The last several years have given us pretty good football around here. Winning seasons and playoff berths have become commonplace. But the underachieving offense has become almost an accepted fixture in recent times, and as each piece of the puzzle gets locked in for millions and millions of dollars, the hope for a new reality fades further away.

    Does scoring a touchdown have to appear so difficult? In this age of offense, isn’t there a solution to deploying offensive players in a way that achieves the occasional strategic advantage? Isn’t there a chance that an offense with great players at nearly every position is capable of so much more? Shouldn’t more be demanded of the architects at some point?

    Kellen Moore was expected to change the direction of this offense over time.Friday’s piece tried to slow expectations for the first few weeks, but Moore and his players appear to be accelerating the timeline.

    Moore’s debut could not have gone more impressively. The promise demonstrated by his new-look offense will be difficult to quantify, and will certainly be tempered by many skeptics wanting to see it about a dozen more times before they risk buying in again. The masses, however, are surely at attention.

    Dallas employed a coordinated symphony of offensive concepts built around their best players to absolutely blow the New York Giants out of the building in this Week 1 declaration of intent. The biggest cause for concern after watching this fireworks show of brilliance would easily be that they raised the bar of expectation too high out of the gate and must now explain that scoring touchdowns on five consecutive NFL drives is extremely rare — as is a perfect QB rating on a 400-yard passing day. If anything, perhaps the Cowboys should have considered slowly ramping up to sneak up on the competition for a few weeks, but that ambush opportunity was lost yesterday. The revolution was absolutely televised.

    There were over a dozen different play-action passes as the Cowboys finally joined those in the league who know that the best way to pass is to try to declare run at the snap. The debate about how well you have to run the ball for play-action passes to work rages on in many circles. But know this: The best play-action fake the Cowboys have ever called was their six-year, $90m extension to Ezekiel Elliott. The moment they signed that deal (actually, the moment they drafted Zeke at No. 4 overall) was the moment that all of their run-fakes were going to be sold well. The Cowboys have advertised that with Ezekiel Elliott and this monstrosity of an offensive line, they plan on ground-and-pounding you into a fine powder. It doesn’t matter if they are actually running the ball effectively in that game or on that drive. Their declaration was made in the headlines, so every linebacker under the sun is worried about the run fits. We should recognize that this is an advantage unique to only a few teams, but Dallas is very much one of them. If someone wants to know why Cowboys fans had been so frustrated about prior offenses and their hesitation to deploy this intuitive advantage, they should wonder no more.

    There was much to soak in from an offensive standpoint. Pre-snap motion was ramped up considerably; on a few plays, four different Cowboys skill-position players started in one direction only to reposition somewhere else. This helps the offense gather information before the snap about the intentions of the defense and also helps spread the defense thin with motion going counter to the actual direction of the play. That is the design. It isn’t that the plays are markedly different than they were in 2018, because most of the actual concepts are going to be quite similar. In fact, most teams are smart enough to steal and add the plays they see from around the league and have them available.

    The design and disposition of the offense, however, is more about two things in particular: The presentation of the play — the motion, the eye-candy to distract defenders, the deception —and the when of the play, combined with the idea that you might actually call a pass on first down followed by another pass on second down, even with Ezekiel Elliott in the lineup making the type of money that he makes. In other words, there is no rule that says since you decided to pay your running back, you have to then turn into one of the most predictable offenses in football. The Rams have demonstrated quite well over the last few years on their way to the Super Bowl that you can have both. An awesome running back and an unpredictable offense spin a defense in circles.

    The first touchdown drive was the best example of all of this. The Cowboys were trailing 7-0 as Saquon Barkley put on a show to give the Giants an early lead. The Cowboys come right back and march 75 yards on 11 plays and mix things up so well that they only faced two third downs. Both were of the 3rd-and-4 variety. In each case, Dak Prescott was able to move the chains with throws inside to Randall Cobb and Michael Gallup that were well past the sticks, but that isn’t even the lead story here. The story was that the Cowboys suffered a drive-killing holding penalty to Zack Martin when they were at the Giants 28-yard line and were pushed back to a 1st-and-17 on the edge of field goal range. Anecdotally, this is where the Scott Linehan/Jason Garrett Cowboys would preserve field-goal range, ensuring they don’t risk their precious three points instead of continuing the attacking posture that moved them down the field in the first place.

    On the 1st-and-17, the Cowboys run a play-action fake to Tony Pollard that frees up Blake Jarwin on a backside slant in front of Jabrill Peppers for seven yards. Then they hurry back to the line and get the tempo up, where on 2nd-and-10 it, they run yet another play-action fake to Pollard from the opposite direction. This was paired with a seam route from Jarwin off the front side of the run look. The moment the tight end ran right past the first two levels of the Giants defense, it was too late. Prescott became so excited that his man was wide open enough to make a fair catch, it seemed, that he didn’t even get the laces or anything approaching a spiral on the ball. He just tried to get it to Jarwin as soon as he could. The Oklahoma State walk-on caught the ball and wandered into the end zone untouched.

    Right now, Moore is working against the tendencies of Linehan/Garrett (the league will soon shift to his tendencies, but they have very little information for now) and against an understaffed defense like the one the Giants employ, it was almost too easy. The touchdown pass to Cobb was a very similar concept as the touchdown to Jarwin, and it resulted in yet another wide open receiver streaking down the middle of the field into the end zone at roughly “practice speed.” It reminds one of Pat Mahomes/Andy Reid in Kansas City and touchdowns where the league MVP is often throwing passes to players who do not have a single defender within three strides in any direction. We don’t debit Mahomes for easy throws; we credit the designers and envy the idea that a QB’s job can actually be made easier if he is working with an offensive mind that contributes. It doesn’t mean that you don’t need your QB to do difficult things sometimes. It just means you don’t need him to do those difficult things every time.

    Back in late July and early August, those of us in California would observe practice. It didn’t take me long to notice a distinction from previous offensive sessions.



    Obviously, I never miss an opportunity for sarcasm on Twitter. But the real trick from August 5th until September 8th was to bring these concepts to Sunday. How do you make your offense’s job easier as a play-caller? How do you design something that schemes up easy throws, multiple options and advantageous situations where big plays can be found? It is a complex question that clearly is not easy to answer, but the Cowboys made seven explosive plays on Sunday against the Giants (gains of 20 yards or more) and every single one of them was through the passing game. Four different receivers were involved, and Michael Gallup was responsible for three on his own yesterday. Keep in mind that it took the Cowboys four weeks to generate seven explosives last year. And they certainly never had seven in one week all season long.

    Last week, I spent a considerable amount of time previewing the Kellen Moore offense here and we addressed the lack of explosives in the offense:

    For all of the people who wax nostalgic for the return of Tony Romo and the olden days, the lack of big plays is a pretty clear shout. In 2014 – Romo’s final full season – the Cowboys found 73 explosives. Since then, 2015 featured 57, 2016 saw 56, 2017 only yielded 46 and 2018 yielded just 51. They still roll out as many 10-play drives as ever, but those big chunk plays have disappeared to where Dallas is 27th in the league for two seasons straight. That means only two teams – Miami and Baltimore – have fewer big plays in the last 32 regular-season games than Dallas. The Cowboys simply must get back up around 65 to be properly competitive.

    How do you fix it? Well, the first goal is to look for them. This ties back to the team’s disposition and the idea of throwing on first down, which were the top two objectives on this list. From there, they need Prescott to attempt more aggressive throws, help from the scheme to free players up deep and, of course, explosive players.

    Again, we have to temper our enthusiasm a bit. Dallas cannot host the Giants every week. But as this team understands its weapons, the QB gets more comfortable in what he is seeing in pre-snap by what the motion and deception is giving him, and the team understands that the best way to hold a lead is to extend it, I think the Cowboys offense should be awfully formidable.


    (Photo: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports)

    Cobb was a very impressive addition, and while he has a reputation of being injury-prone, it should be stated that 2018 is the only season in the last five where he didn’t play at least 13 games. Yes, he is not what he once was, but he is certainly the most dynamic third receiver this team could hope for. At his price point, he provides the Cowboys with great value. Adding Witten to what Jarwin does might continue to be sneaky-effective and then, of course, we know they have big plans for Tony Pollard even if they will have to ramp up his usage as we go. There is time for that.

    We learned a lot on Sunday. We learned that Prescott can be what they want him to be as a productive play-making QB. A player who has intelligence and decision making as his better traits, but also can drop a pass on a platter downfield while taking a blitzer’s best shot. We learned that the options on this offense are numerous and can spread you out, then pick you apart. And we learned that the offense’s designer is not likely to give us the same risk-averse “try to hold this three-point lead” offense that bogged down so often the last several years.

    The offense badly needed to change, and Kellen Moore has plenty of ideas for bringing that about. Again, they will not always host bad teams. There are much tougher days ahead. But Moore’s debut and his offensive ideas definitely put a little wind in the sails of belief around here. It’s enough to make one wonder what 2019 could hold for a young, home-grown team that thinks they can compete for big prizes.

    There were plenty of other things to discuss from Sunday’s big win and we will definitely break it down this week. But on this day, let’s soak in the possibility of this offensive overhaul being real. If it is, with this defense and depth on the roster, Dallas might have a real chance this season.
    2016 DCC LOTY Fantasy Football Champion

  • #2
    Dak clearly made some throws that were wobbly, but it was great to see him take the snap, make his drops, and throw the ball. No patting, no uncertainty, just stepping up (in most cases) and throwing the ball. Granted the Giants shaky defense helped, but he has more confidence in himself.

    It was interesting to see him adjust to the defense as well. When he would get a pre-snap read and then turn his back to the defense and communicate the adjustments to his WRs, I don't think he missed on any of those.

    Comment


    • #3
      Originally posted by mcnuttz View Post
      Dak clearly made some throws that were wobbly, but it was great to see him take the snap, make his drops, and throw the ball. No patting, no uncertainty, just stepping up (in most cases) and throwing the ball. Granted the Giants shaky defense helped, but he has more confidence in himself.

      It was interesting to see him adjust to the defense as well. When he would get a pre-snap read and then turn his back to the defense and communicate the adjustments to his WRs, I don't think he missed on any of those.
      I'm curious to see if defenses adjust. All our previous tendencies went out the window and it gave us an advantage. Linehan sort of had big success when he first came in but he became predictable.

      Comment


      • #4
        Simply utilizing play action more off of our running game will make the offense more effective in general, even if the league catches on to his tendencies. Self-scouting and breaking your own tendencies is a big thing though and it's another thing I complained about quite a lot when it came to our offensive play-calling. McVay and Belichick are huge on self-scouting, and ultimately if Moore wants to be one of those "genius" play-callers, he's going to have to look at what he's doing and break his own tendencies before defenses catch up.

        Comment


        • #5
          Originally posted by Cowboysrock55 View Post
          I'm curious to see if defenses adjust.
          This is my concern with Moore. What if teams start to figure him out? Can he adjust? We will see.
          2016 DCC LOTY Fantasy Football Champion

          Comment


          • #6
            Originally posted by Simpleton View Post
            Simply utilizing play action more off of our running game will make the offense more effective in general, even if the league catches on to his tendencies. Self-scouting and breaking your own tendencies is a big thing though and it's another thing I complained about quite a lot when it came to our offensive play-calling. McVay and Belichick are huge on self-scouting, and ultimately if Moore wants to be one of those "genius" play-callers, he's going to have to look at what he's doing and break his own tendencies before defenses catch up.
            Yes, this.
            2016 DCC LOTY Fantasy Football Champion

            Comment


            • #7
              I think with the coaching lineage in his family he'll be aware of that stiff and not get too predictable. Plus I think he's smart enough to know that his success here will set him up for life with many opportunities to come. I think that will guard against predictability.

              Comment


              • #8
                Originally posted by Simpleton View Post
                Simply utilizing play action more off of our running game will make the offense more effective in general, even if the league catches on to his tendencies. Self-scouting and breaking your own tendencies is a big thing though and it's another thing I complained about quite a lot when it came to our offensive play-calling. McVay and Belichick are huge on self-scouting, and ultimately if Moore wants to be one of those "genius" play-callers, he's going to have to look at what he's doing and break his own tendencies before defenses catch up.
                i have the feeling he's (Moore) ahead of us on this point. he seems to embrace concepts that seem novel to Garrett
                defense wins championships

                Comment


                • #9
                  It still amazes me that it took them this long to finally start utilizing pre-snap motion and play-action to their advantage.

                  Those are very basic concepts in today's NFL. I don't know if it was just the coaches being stubborn or incompetent.

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    Also, I love that sarcastic tweet in Sturm's article regarding his surprise that the Cowboys defense actually looking confused for a change at practice.

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