The Dallas Cowboys had no defined identity and that’s not a bad thing
The Bill Walsh West Coast offense; the Mike Shanahan/Alex Gibbs Wide Zone Running Game; the Air Coryell (previously run by the Dallas Cowboys); the Air Raid; the Spread. All these philosophies have been important for the growth of football in some fashion. Plays from these offenses exist in every creative offensive coordinator’s arsenal and they are flipped between rather effortlessly.
This season, Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore installed an offense so diverse the league had never seen anything like it. Quoted by the Ringer’s Steven Ruiz as “a system-less offensive system” it truly was an offense borrowing from his time at Boise State, his time under Jason Garrett (a disciple of the Air Coryell), and his time under Mike McCarthy (a disciple of the West Coast).
It was an offense that tried to take easy yards from side overloads, box overloads, and the pass (play) action fake. Its running game is a combination but focused more on Gap/Duo runs over other Zone runs.
The only reason it was so effective was Dak Prescott had the football IQ to make it work. Going through his checks at the line, Prescott was given full control to audible in and out of plays, change protections, and individually adjust receivers all from the line of scrimmage. It was a well-oiled machine it found itself at the top of most offensive stat categories by season’s end.
But when it mattered, it showed no bearable fruit… So what happened? Were the mind games for Prescott too much? Did the health of the whole unit start to negatively impact the execution on the field? Was the offense trying to be too creative that it got casual and everyone started neglecting their responsibilities?
The questions came and several were answered. Prescott was doing too much at the line; a stunning development given how easy Moore and Prescott worked off each other at the beginning of the season, especially against better talent. The execution was lacking; a four-man front was consistently beating five offensive linemen, good ones might I add.
As Kyle Shanahan proved, the ability to execute and pay attention to the finer details in the simpler things would prove victorious.
But in the process, the question remained: did the Dallas Cowboys lack of identity ultimately spoil what should have been a special season?
Let me explain:
The Cincinnati Bengals HC Zac Taylor was the QB coach for the LA Rams under Sean McVay, but also spent time at the University of Cincinnati as their offensive coordinator and QB coach. Taylor comes from two popular offensive backgrounds and he’s able to incorporate bits and pieces of both into their current offensive attack headlined by Joe Burrow.
Burrow, a mentally sound QB, is incredibly confident lining up in empty protection (five-man protection) throwing with touch to every receiver on the field with the ability to extend plays when his offensive line can’t hold up.
He now has familiarity with signal-calling from under center with heavy personnel and is able to execute the rollout-heavy play-action passes popular in Shanahan offenses. When Cincinnati runs the ball, they flip between outside zone and power runs; these two runs require offensive linemen moving, but both runs look very different.
Without getting too into the nitty-gritty, this is incredibly effective because the offense can run different ways from the same formations essentially hitting the defense with tendency breakers. In the same way, Cincinnati is far too successful throwing the fade route to Ja’Marr Chase against man coverage, but the moment they feel his corner bailing, they throw to Tyler Boyd over the middle or Tee Higgins vertically.
It’s an offense with a structured way of operating, but still heavily dependent on understanding pre-snap coverage reads and matchups. Sounds like a certain offense Dallas Cowboys fans are akin to. *cough* *cough*
Even with the context of the other participant in this year’s Super Bowl, the Los Angeles Rams, their bread and butter has been wide zone with play-action passes targeting the intermediate middle of the field. In order to deal with the midseason wall they inevitably succumb to, McVay would incorporate more Gap/Power runs and go with heavier personnel instead of their traditional 11 personnel.
Ever since Matthew Stafford has joined the Los Angeles Rams, McVay has called more empty formations than he ever did with Goff while throwing the ball deeper more often. With strong receivers who can box out defenders and display good ball tracking, Los Angeles was able to unlock another part of their offense while also fortifying the connection between Cooper Kupp and Matthew Stafford off of the 10-yard out.
No matter how you slice it, teams that made it farther into the playoffs than the Cowboys had a backup plan to generate yards and keep the offense ahead of the chains, almost exclusively from a single concept. Whether it’s a back-shoulder fade to Ja’Marr Chase, an out route to Cooper Kupp, an intermediate crosser to Tyreek Hill, or the outside zone run of the 49ers, the Cowboys didn’t have a go-to play to ease the pressure off of Dak Prescott and Kellen Moore.
The ideology of the Jason Garrett era Dallas Cowboys was to be a power running team, however, the most notable plays from this era were fade routes to Dez Bryant and slants to Cole Beasley. In the clutch, these two were incredibly reliable doing these two things over and over again.
In all, perhaps the issue with the Cowboys was that the chemistry sold to fans and analysts wasn’t as good as advertised. The team had three-star receivers who were incredibly well-rounded that provided discrete roles for the offense, and yet when it mattered most, Prescott and Moore weren’t able to find the balance to divvy up targets and generate yards in critical situations. It’s rather startling to see Prescott, known for being relatively clutch since the start of his career, only had one fourth-quarter comeback all season.
So do the Dallas Cowboys need an offensive identity moving forward? No. One play/concept doesn’t make up an identity. However, in order to get this experiment to work, they might want to try getting the right personnel for Moore and company?