Dallas Cowboys: Play-action could be Andy Dalton’s success or downfall

How the Andy Dalton era goes with the Dallas Cowboys may come down his ability to use play-action and other offensive staples.

Play-action inherently works. Whether the running game is humming or not, defenders instinctually respond to run-fakes which open up opportunities in the passing game.  That’s why Kellen Moore leans on it so much with the Dallas Cowboys. And that’s why all the top offenses in the NFL use it regularly.

But it wasn’t always as prevalent as it is today. At the start of Andy Dalton‘s career, it was still a novelty. As time went on Dalton’s play-action usage increased. And the results of which were usually pretty good, that is, until last season…

Play-action and Andy Dalton

The NFL wasn’t always so progressive. Once upon a time, advanced stats, analytics, and probabilities were seen as some sort of hoodoo voodoo by NFL teams. But here in the age of enlightenment, the science of football is gaining ground and facts are winning out over feelings.

Over the course of Andy Dalton’s career, he’s captained West Coast offenses, Air Coryell offenses and sometimes a mixture of each. All of which featured various amounts of play-action.

In the wake of Sean McVay’s success in LA, teams have taken notice of the almighty power of play-action. “Establishing the run” has largely been debunked since running back success has little to no influence on the success or failure of play-action, and as such, even poor rushing offenses are now using the play-fake in today’s NFL.

“Establishing the run” has largely been debunked since running back success has little to no influence on the success or failure of play-action

The Bengals, led by McVay disciple, Zac Taylor, subsequently embraced the trend. And in 2019 they applied heavy doses of play-action into their attack – an attack that leaned on 11 personnel, motion, and quick passes. All of that should sound familiar to Dallas Cowboys fans because it’s basically what we’re seeing here.

How did Andy Dalton do in this Dallas Cowboys-like offense?

Career lows across the board.

In all fairness, Dalton’s receiving corps was without AJ Green, and even with him, they wouldn’t hold a candle to Dallas’ star-studded group. As such, struggles were expected. But the offensive line in Cincinnati was comparable to Dallas, as was the stable of halfbacks. Dalton didn’t just go 2-11 last season but he noticeably struggled with play-action. Again, a big part of this Cowboys offense.

Kellen Moore isn’t blind to this, it seems. When Dalton took over mid-third quarter, the Dallas Cowboys applied a full-stop on their highly successful play-action strategy.

Many of Dalton’s struggles last season in that Cowboys-similar offense can be linked to just terrible talent around him. With the exception of the running back corps, the Bengal offense was simply terrible. Andy Dalton is also a passer who anticipates his throws more than most. He throws early and likes to keep his eyes downfield so he can lock in his timing. He’s not a player who loves to turn his back to the play. Which is fine, there’s a lot of NFL QBs who don’t like traditional play-action (see also: Aaron Rodgers).

In Dalton’s 11 passing attempts last week, none are what I would categorize as a play-action. There was one play that appeared to be a run-pass option (which looks strikingly similar to a play-action), but he appeared to be reading the defense and responding accordingly mid-play, thus making it an RPO.

Related Story: The difference between RPO, Read Option, and Play-action

For this Dallas Cowboys offense to work, they need to continue doing what worked for them and that’s play-action, motion, and early down passing. Can Andy Dalton do that in Dallas? We shall see but based on his recent struggles in Cincinnati, it’s not a foregone conclusion.

We don’t know exactly what to expect when Andy Dalton goes under center this week, but for now let’s respect the challenges of the job and issues Kellen Moore has ahead of him tailoring an offense for Andy Dalton. Play-action is important because year after year, it proves to buy more time in the pocket before pressure arrives. That’s more time for receivers to get open. More time to get downfield. More time to break down a defense.

Next: Will Feeding Zeke help Andy Dalton? The answer may surprise...

The Dallas Cowboys only used play-action 11 times last week (tying a season low) and none of those attempts were with Andy Dalton under center. That has to change.