by Derrik Klassen
Rewind almost exactly one year ago. Following a Week 3 loss last season, the Dallas Cowboys offense was put under the Football Outsiders Film Room microscope. Under then-offensive coordinator Scott Linehan in the first three weeks, Dallas was using a majority shotgun offense that used three or more receivers on 73% of their snaps despite sporting an awful wide receiver corps. Three-plus receivers and majority shotgun usage is fine in a vacuum, but not with the personnel they had at the time. The Cowboys also were in the bottom half of the league in play-action passing to that point. Nothing Linehan's offense was doing was forward-thinking or fit to the team's personnel.
Fast-forward back to current day and the Cowboys are again under the microscope, but for the opposite reason from last year. First-year offensive coordinator Kellen Moore's debut on Sunday was as impressive as we've seen from a young play caller. It's not just that the Cowboys dropped 35 points in three quarters; it's that the avenue with which they got there was a fresh, fitting look for America's Team.
The only surface similarity between Linehan's offense and Moore's is Moore's usage of three or more receivers. Dallas played out of 11 personnel on 73% of their snaps on Sunday, good for one of the highest rates in the league and right on par with Linehan's three-plus-receiver usage. This iteration of the Cowboys offense, though, features Amari Cooper, Randall Cobb, and second-year Michael Gallup as the team's top three receivers. Last year, Dallas' three "best" receivers at the beginning of the year were Allen Hurns (cut last July), Cole Beasley (allowed to walk this offseason), and Deonte Thompson (cut November of 2018), with Gallup earning snaps here and there as he tried to find his footing in the early goings of his rookie season.
That's where the similarities end. Nothing else about Linehan's stale, static offense compares to Moore's modern, amoebic offense.
Moore's callback to his Boise State days was noticeable on Sunday. Dallas made pre-snap motions or shifts on a majority of their plays, just like Moore's college teams did. Every offense does this to some degree, but to do it at the rate Moore called on Sunday requires careful, detailed coaching. It's impressive that Dallas appears coached well enough to pull it off despite Moore's inexperience in the coaching realm.
Pre-snap motion also requires a quarterback who makes the most of what defenses give him. Primarily, pre-snap movements are designed to give the quarterback an extra tidbit of information as to what the defense is doing and/or throw the defense off balance with a last-second change. Dak Prescott isn't great at everything, but he is one of the best at commanding the pre-snap process, finding the open/easy route, and playing within the rules of the system. He is the perfect quarterback for Moore's offense.
Perhaps the best example of Prescott having autonomy before the snap and using information to his advantage came on a deep throw to Gallup.
Prescott kicks things off by shifting Cooper from a left slot position to an iso position on the right side of the formation. The cornerback covering Cooper in the slot (Antonio Hamilton, 30) follows him to the right side, indicating that the Giants will be in man coverage. Prescott takes note of the Giants' intentions, makes a check at the line of scrimmage, and drops a deep pass in the bucket to Gallup streaking down the left sideline. Quarterback play does not get much sharper than that.
Moore likes to get a little jazzier than just moving one guy, though. In some instances, all five of Dallas' skill players repositioned prior to the snap. The entire formation of the offense changed in an instant. Also, the quarterback's alignment often flipped from shotgun to under-center or vice-versa.
Here is one such instance of Dallas completely changing their look pre-snap. At first, the Cowboys come out in with an empty backfield, but Prescott gives the signal change and condenses the formation. The two tight ends split out like wide receivers on the right side kick inside to attach to the formation, while Ezekiel Elliott shifts from the left slot to a pistol alignment behind Prescott. In the blink of an eye, Dallas went from a surefire pass formation to an ambiguous look that threatens pass to the wide side (left) of the field with two wide receivers and hints at run to the boundary side (right) with a two-tight end set.
After the snap, the play concept takes advantage of both possibilities. Prescott drops his hips and turns to his right to fake run for a brief moment upon taking the snap. Between the offense shifting into a two-tight end set just before the snap and Prescott giving a hand-off fake to his right, the boundary-side cornerback (Hamilton) falls hard for the run threat and shuffles forward at the snap. He tries to bail back up the field, but his head is spinning throughout the play and he takes too long to commit to recovering ground. Prescott finds Randal Cobb deep down the right hash where the boundary cornerback should have been for an easy completion.
Though not as dramatic a shift, the following play riffs on the same play design idea: manipulate the defense into believing one thing, then do another. That isn't a groundbreaking concept, but as we see every week in the NFL, it's easier said than done.
Similar to the previous play, Elliott lines up in the left slot before shifting into the backfield. With two tight ends attached to the right side of the formation into the short side of the field, Dallas is showing that they might go with a downhill running play into the heavy side of the formation. As such, New York's defense adjusts to the possibility by sliding the field-side linebacker (Tae Davis, 58) closer to the middle of the formation, while the field-side safety (Antoine Bethea, 41) takes a few steps back to give himself more leeway to cover more ground.
The adjustment of the two defenders creates a wide-open window over the left hash and coaxes the linebacker into committing to the run. As the Giants defense predicted, the Cowboys did show a pulling run play into the boundary. Unfortunately for the G-men, the run action was one-half of an RPO package. The other half was a double-slant pass concept to the opposite side of the field, where Prescott found Cooper uncontested over the middle. Cooper's slant route hit smack dead in the middle of where New York's two defenders vacated from following Elliott's shift.
The intention of a pre-snap shift or motion doesn't always have to be as complicated as tricking the defense into believing something, either. Sometimes motion is used as a means to force the defense to tip its coverage. Even simpler, motion can be used just to get a player moving in space before the ball is snapped.
On this play, the Giants come out in what looks to be a man coverage call. Prescott sends Cobb, the lone receiver on the right, in orbit motion behind the backfield and prepares to take the snap once Cobb crosses over to the other side of the formation. In doing so, Prescott sees Hamilton follow Cobb across and confirms that the Giants are in man coverage. Prescott then has to make the decision to throw to Cobb out in space or hand the ball off to Elliot in the opposite direction. Trusting that Cobb can make a play against Hamilton in the open field, Prescott flips the ball out to the left. Cobb takes it well past the sticks for a Cowboys first down.
There is a common thread in the last three plays. Though set up and executed in different ways, all three play calls featured some sort of run action to manufacture space for a pass concept. The first was a true play-action call, while the other two were run-pass options in which Prescott chose to throw. On Sunday, 48% of Prescott's pass attempts came off of play-action (RPOs included), so it is not as though these three plays were cherry-picked from an otherwise bland performance.
Moore hit all the buzzwords and popular ideas that analysts yearn for from offensive coordinators. Play-action, RPOs, deep passing, prioritizing passing over running -- Dallas' offense looked like NFL analytics Twitter calling an offense. But more important than any particular idea or tendency, Moore put together a cohesive offense. No motion was wasted, no shift was purposeless, no formation and personnel set went uncalculated. Moore clearly went in with a game plan, not just an assortment of plays to be strung together on the fly.
It's too early to know if Moore can keep this up. The Giants' defense isn't the best barometer, and this is a one-game sample. Even if Moore does continue to piece together a good offense, it won't work like this every week. Still, the mark of a top-flight offensive mind is the ability to make plays look the same as one another until it's too late for the defense to react, while mixing in concepts that push the envelope of what is possible. Moore checked both boxes in his debut and paved a foundation around which he can develop a full offense as the season rolls on.