The ideal circumstances in Dallas—the wrecking crew of an offensive line, Ezekiel Elliott in the backfield, and Dez Bryant and Jason Witten catching passes downfield—make it virtually impossible to gauge Dak Prescott’s true level of talent. We'll find out when things go awry for the Cowboys
In the spring of 2012, right around draft time, Kellen Moore became a delicate subject for an NFL analyst living in Boise, Idaho. Most of the city was certain that one of its most beloved athletes ever belonged in the NFL—after all, Moore’s numbers as a four-year starting quarterback at Boise State were off the charts, and the Broncos program had never been stronger. Mentions of Moore’s diminutive stature (6' 0", 197 pounds) and limited arm strength were waived off or treated like a conspiracy theory. The NFL just doesn’t want to give a little guy a chance, Boiseans said.
Indeed, Moore’s limited size and arm made him go undrafted; though to his immense credit, he ultimately landed on Detroit’s practice squad as a college free agent and stuck around in the league for a half-dozen years. During this time, the city of Boise came to terms with their star quarterback’s physical attributes, but all that did was boost the praise for Moore’s uncanny football IQ. So much as utter the name “Kellen” to 100 random Boiseans, and you’d hear 100 people tell you that he’d make a great coach.
This time, it appears, the people were right. Rarely is this sort of narrative as true as the hype. Those closer to the NFL admired Moore’s football mind but didn’t quite gush over it the way his fans did. Yes, Moore ran an innovative, high-flying offense at Boise State. But in many ways, college and pro football are two different games. Moore’s NFL bones were strengthened under Scott Linehan, as a reserve quarterback for five years (two in Detroit, three in Dallas) and then as Linehan’s QB coach in 2018.
There’s a saying around the NFL: coaches coach what they know. Moore may have run a majestic offense in college, but Linehan’s system was based more on traditional execution. Yes, its often-isolated downfield route designs succeeded for many years; about half of Linehan’s offenses have finished in the top six in yards, and some of his early 2000s Vikings offenses were outright powerhouses. But in later 2010s, the evolution of NFL defenses demanded that offensive schemes become more intricate. Pre-snap motions and shifts, diversified formations and personnel packages, and especially intertwined route combinations became mandatory for most teams. To get in on this, the Cowboys this past offseason replaced Linehan with Moore.
These new-age tactics comprise the foundation of most young offensive coaches’ schemes, but if that was to become Dallas’s identity, it would mean Moore essentially had spent time writing a playbook at home, as he’d never played or coached in such a system. Creating a new playbook is impressive, and even more impressive is implementing that playbook. It’s one thing to design an offense, it’s another to teach it.
Through three weeks, Moore looks like a great teacher. In Week 1 the Cowboys lit up the Giants with a barrage of pre-snap motions, intersecting routes and post-snap jet-and-orbit motion. In Week 2 at Washington, the Cowboys scaled back a step or two, using more of the spread 2x2 concepts they’d run under Linehan, perhaps in an effort to exploit the Redskins’ zone coverages. (Spread your offense and you widen a defense’s zone voids.) In Week 3 against Miami, Dallas showed more pre-snap movement and a host of multi-level crossing routes inside, high-lowing Dolphins underneath defenders across the middle of the field. Their execution was good, not great, which for that game was more than enough. Overall, given the volume of new things the players are being asked to do, Dallas’s offense looks very buttoned up.
The fascinating part about Moore’s offense? It potentially shifts the Dak Prescott conversation. Quarterbacking the old scheme, Prescott was a decent-armed thrower with up-and-down pre-snap recognition and a limited feel for anticipation passing. These weaknesses were subtle, not glaring, and they could sometimes be camouflaged by Prescott’s mobility. Still, the Cowboys brass presumably knew that their offense, which was rightfully built around its powerhouse ground game, was getting less from its quarterback than most. And yet, the Cowboys were 33-18 (including playoffs) with that quarterback, who was barely 26 years old.
In Moore’s system, Prescott has the chance to be a whole new player. The pre-snap movement and diverse formations can compel a defense to reveal its coverage before the snap. The intertwined routes present more defined reads. Defined reads can make for a more decisive thrower—and when Prescott is decisive he’s shown that his arm, while certainly still not in the Mahomes or even Mayfield class, is better than “decent.”
Prescott has played well in Moore’s scheme so far. You still see a throw or two left on the field and the occasional decision made slower than it should be, often because Prescott can stay too long on a bad read early in his progression. But much more common are the sound plays that Prescott makes. This includes some impressive downfield throws made courageously when pass rushers are closing in. Plus, as the Dolphins learned, Prescott’s mobility can resuscitate a play that’s covered well. He remains a dangerous scrambler and, especially lately, an apt thrower while on the move.
There’s still room for improvement. Sunday night at New Orleans the Cowboys will see their most difficult opposing defense of this young season. The Saints are not overly complex in their coverage concepts, but they steadily change coverages from snap to snap. Prescott will have to connect on some of his later progression reads. He’ll also be contending with a much scarier pass rush than what he faced in Weeks 1, 2 and especially 3. But, he’s seen defenses like this before (including this specific defense) and he now comes equipped with a modernized scheme.
This was right after Antonio Brown’s release, and I heard from plenty of Chiefs fans. And I get it. Patrick Mahomes and the offense look unstoppable. They did last year, too, but Kansas City’s defense was ultimately too porous. That’s why this offseason the Chiefs changed coordinators (Bob Sutton out, Steve Spagnuolo in) and roughly half the defensive lineup. Headlining these changes was ex-Seahawks defensive end Frank Clark, who is off to a solid start in 2019. But the real boost has come from new cornerback Bashaud Breeland. A quietly versatile cover corner for the Redskins (and, for parts of 2018, the Packers), Breeland this year has often traveled with opposing No. 1 receivers. Spagnuolo runs more zone coverage than man coverage, but his zone calls, especially when he’s blitzing (which will likely be more often as the season progresses) carry a lot of man coverage principles outside. Overall, Kansas City’s defense is still closer to “average” than “good,” but that still makes it better than last year. If Kansas City’s D can get a tick or two sounder, there is no problem with someone declaring this team the Super Bowl favorite.
JET MOTION EXPANDING
This offseason, one defensive coach told me his team didn’t have a built in plan for covering jet-sweep receiver downfield because you almost never see vertical routes from a receiver who goes in jet motion. The exponentially increasing prominence of the jet action suggests that would inevitably change – and indeed, the movement is underway. This summer, Bengals head coach Zac Taylor got giddy when he figured out that the flat defender (aka the furthest outside underneath defender) is likely to abandon his zone at the sight of a run play. So, Taylor installed a flea-flicker there with a receiver running jet motion, drifting to a stop and then accelerating back down the sideline. They called the play in Week 1 at Seattle and found John Ross uncovered for a 33-yard touchdown. The axiom that the NFL is a copycat league is true. In Week 3, the Texans mimicked this play, also against a Seahawks-style Cover 3 defense (the Chargers) and found Kenny Stills for 38 yards. Defenses must now be prepared to defend deep shots to jet-motioning receivers. Which means, not only is a jet-motioning receiver now a greater weapon, he’s also more valuable as a decoy. Jet motion isn’t going away.
LET’S REWORD “INTENTIONAL GROUNDING”
On Sunday, Patrick Mahomes was flagged for intentional grounding when his intended receiver, Travis Kelce, collided with Marlon Humphrey and went to the ground. (Humphrey got away with illegal contact, but that’s not the point.) Mahomes’s throw subsequently landed in an unoccupied area and so the pass was flagged. Andy Reid and the Chiefs’ sideline went berserk. But by the letter of the rule, the officials had to throw the flag. Because how is a ref to know that a fallen receiver was indeed headed for the area where the ball landed?
There’s a way to remove the controversy of this play: dump the word “intentional.” Just call it grounding. Plenty of intentional grounding fouls result from a receiver being in the wrong place, and they’re correct calls for the same reason that the flag on Mahomes was correct: officials cannot judge the intent of the play, just its result. Grounding fouls, like most fouls, are often committed unintentionally. But they’re still fouls. We don’t have fouls for intentional holding. Or for intentional false starting. Or for intentional pass interference. Fouls are just fouls. Call a grounding foul “grounding.”
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Patriots @ Bills
The Bills are 3-0 thanks mainly to their defensive back seven. Linebackers Matt Milano and now especially 2018 first-rounder Tremaine Edmunds play fast and instinctively. Versatile safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer are interchangeable. Tre’Davious White is a quality No. 1 corner and undrafted second-year man Levi Wallace has quietly been stellar across from him. The Bills have not yet faced an offense even as remotely challenging as New England’s, but they’re equipped to compete. Tactically, what really stands out each week is how well defensive-minded head coach Sean McDermott and his staff understand their opponent’s protections, and how creatively yet seamlessly their back seven can rotate into different coverages after the snap. They’ll rely heavily on that Sunday.
Browns @ Ravens
There’s no doubt that Cleveland’s offensive line is struggling. But it’s not just the men up front. Baker Mayfield has yet to truly look like himself as a field-reader, and the Browns are yet to find any rhythm with their downfield vertical route concepts—which they’ve called upon frequently. First-year head coach Freddie Kitchens has done what a head coach should do: deflect the blame onto himself. But this is an entire offense out of sync, and now it’s going on the road to face a violent, complex, blitz-oriented Ravens D that knows the Browns well. Kitchens would be wise to dial up a few vertical passes on 1st-and-10, when the defense is inherently most predictable and its pass rush less fervid.
Panthers @ Texans
J.J. Watt is not the only force to be reckoned with up front. Two other Texans have shined this year as pass rushers. One you’d expect: Whitney Mercilus. The supple eighth-year pro is back to playing on the edge now that Jadeveon Clowney is gone. The other is a surprise: D.J. Reader. The 327-pound run-clogger isn’t even really a true “pass rusher” per se. But don’t tell Chargers left guard Dan Feeney that. Reader plays with outstanding leverage and technique, and several times last Sunday he amplified it with quickness and agility off the snap.
It has become trendy for people to preface their counterarguments—especially online—with an overt display of laughter. Before I argue my point against your point, let me first artificially boost my point by feigning bemusement at the smallness of your point. Let’s outlaw this practice. Mock bemusement is a cheap tactic designed to give its user a false moral high-ground.
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