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The Cowboys’ 2019 Hopes Lie in the Hands of the NFL’s Youngest Play-caller

Kellen Moore has just one year of coaching experience under his belt. This season, he’s tasked with getting Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott to justify their looming mega-extensions.

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The NFL is valuing youth and innovation more than ever before. A year after the Rams made Sean McVay the youngest head coach in league history, Patrick Mahomes became the youngest MVP winner since Dan Marino. This offseason, an avalanche followed: The Cardinals threw caution to the wind and paired Kliff Kingsbury with Kyler Murray, the Packers ended the Mike McCarthy era, and the Bengals poached the Rams’ quarterbacks coach to be their new head coach. When did the NFL begin to resemble Silicon Valley? Welcome to Wunderkind Week, when we’ll dive deep into how the NFL became a young man’s league.

For the past decade and a half, the Dallas Cowboys have played it safe with their coaching hires. Owner Jerry Jones brought in two-time Super Bowl winner Bill Parcells—the embodiment of the old NFL establishment—to lead the team in 2003. When Parcells left coaching three seasons later, Dallas hired league fixture Wade Phillips. Throughout Phillips’s tenure, Jones seemed to be grooming former backup QB and Cowboys lifer Jason Garrett for the role, and after Philips was fired in 2010, Garrett took over. He’s held the job ever since.

Dallas has been similarly cautious in choosing its assistants: Garrett relinquished play-calling duties in 2013—after holding them for two full seasons—and former Rams head coach and veteran play-caller Scott Linehan filled that role for the past four years. A franchise that’s been notoriously aggressive when it comes to player personnel (see: last year’s midseason trade for Amari Cooper), has been far more risk-averse in the coaching realm. Which made this offseason’s decision to empower Kellen Moore to call plays such a surprise.

Following a promising start to the Dak Prescott–Ezekiel Elliott era in Jerry World, the Cowboys offense sputtered during the past two seasons. Dallas finished a lowly 24th in offensive DVOA in 2018, one spot behind the Lions. After an initial vote of confidence from Garrett in the days after the Cowboys’ divisional-round loss to the Rams, Linehan was fired in mid-January. The Dallas media speculated that Garrett would resume play-calling duties in 2019, but instead of maintaining the status quo, the front office took a risk. Moore has been with the organization since 2015, first in a reserve QB role and then as the team’s QBs coach last year. Now, with just one season of coaching experience under his belt, he’ll be the one making the calls.

Fifteen different teams are going into Week 1 with a different offensive play-caller than the one who held that title at the beginning of the 2018 season. For the most part, those coaches have a history of calling plays, either in college or the NFL. Only four of the 15 have never held a play-calling role in their coaching careers, and of that group, none will face the type of pressure awaiting Moore this fall.

Other first-time play-callers, like the Dolphins’ Chad O’Shea and the Bengals’ Zac Taylor, enter this season coaching offenses with modest expectations. For Dallas, though, the sense of urgency has never been higher. Prescott wants a new deal worth upward of $35 million per season. Elliott is currently on a beach in Cabo as his contract holdout drags on. Dallas is expected to eventually extend both when the two sides can find common ground, which will likely mean spending around $50 million per season on the team’s two biggest stars.

A boyish coordinator in his first year on the job may seem like an odd choice to steer that pricey ship, but some within the organization are already convinced that Moore is the right fit. “He’s brilliant,” says Cowboys quarterbacks coach Jon Kitna. “He can see 22 people at one time on the field and know why certain things are happening. He also has a great understanding of how to attack defenses and understand what they’re going to do.” The Cowboys are on the brink of investing a small fortune in their future. And they’ll rely on the league’s most inexperienced coordinator to stretch that money as far as it can go.

Dak Prescott
Dak Prescott
John McCoy/Getty Images

At 30 years old, Moore is the youngest play-caller in the NFL—and it shows. On this Tuesday afternoon in August, he’s dressed in a baggy T-shirt and shorts and looks more like an overgrown sleepaway camper than an NFL coach. It’s probably been a few days since he’s shaved, and it’ll be a few more before he has to do anything about it. Only two years removed from his playing career, Moore is now coaching his former teammates, some of whom—like 37-year-old Jason Witten—are several years his senior. “It’s unique in the sense that when you’re asking a player to do something, I was just in that position,” Moore says.

At this point, Moore is far more famous for his college football accolades than his coaching credentials. He went 50-3 in his four seasons as the Boise State starter and became the first QB in college football history to tally 50 victories. In 2010, he finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting. Undersized and physically outgunned at the pro level, Moore was never able to translate his college dominance to the NFL, but his time in Boise will likely pay dividends this fall. Under head coach Chris Petersen (who’s been at Washington since 2014), the Broncos showcased one of the most innovative offenses in college football. “That’s the world I was involved with and kind of embraced, trying to be a little bit different,” Moore says. Loaded with various formations, motions, and methods of deception, the principles that defined Boise’s prolific attack are just what the previously lifeless Cowboys approach needs.

Under Linehan in 2018, Dallas utilized pre-snap motion on just 31 percent of its plays, according to Sports Info Solutions. That figure ranked 24th in the league and was well below the NFL average of 36.6 percent. The Cowboys’ static approach, replete with passing concepts that often featured the receivers executing the same route combinations on both sides of the formation, made the Cowboys predictable. The hope is that Moore can add more layers to this system, ones that will bewilder defenses. And the early signs point to a more creative approach.

Moore and Garrett made a blanket decision to keep the offense’s language consistent from what Dallas has used in the past. With nearly every starter from 2018’s unit returning this year, Moore felt no need to add extra confusion to the offensive installation. Many of the route types and combinations will also carry over from Linehan’s version. The biggest difference with Moore’s scheme will be the packaging. “Plays are plays,” Moore says. “Everybody’s got the same plays. At the end of the day, it’s how you present them.”

Across the NFL, passes out of heavier packages (like 12 personnel) have been much more effective than those out of lighter looks (11 personnel) over the past few years: In 2018, throws from 11 personnel averaged 7.1 yards per attempt; those out of 12 personnel averaged 8.1. Despite that, Dallas passed out of 12 personnel just 9 percent of the time last season (the league average was 14 percent) and threw just 78 passes with two tight ends or a fullback on the field. Compare that to the 49ers (228) and Patriots (164), and the gap between the Cowboys and the league’s most innovative schemes becomes apparent. “I think you’d be kinda dumb not to look at those things,” Moore said of the Niners and Pats offenses. “They’ve been doing some really positive things, and it’s certainly been branching out throughout the league.”

The Cowboys have already implemented a wider variety of personnel packages in training camp. Moore’s offense has practiced a considerable amount of plays that start with one or two backs on the field and use motion to create an empty formation, a tactic that the Patriots used in the Super Bowl—and for most of last season—with great success. “We want to spread it out and make the defense have to cover the full field,” Kitna says. “We’re going to try to use formations and shifts and movements to our advantage. I think a lot of people have that idea coming in, but we’re going to emphasize that.” Those tactics will particularly help Elliott, and though the running back hasn’t been present for camp, it’s clear that Moore has designed concepts with him in mind.

The Cowboys’ Pro Bowl back had the best receiving year of his career in 2018; his 77 receptions were 19 more than he tallied over his first two seasons combined. But the Cowboys can still do more to maximize his abilities as a pass catcher. Elliott lined up in the slot or out wide on only 54 snaps last season. When Arizona’s David Johnson tallied 487 air yards in 2016—200 more than the previous decade’s running back record—he lined up as a receiver 197 times. Despite seeing a larger receiving workload last season, Elliott ranked 24th in air yards among the 50 backs with at least 25 targets. His average depth of target was 0.5 yards, which ranked 30th. The best way to manufacture pass-catching value from an excellent dual-threat back—especially one who’s about to be paid to reflect that skill set—is to shift his targets from checkdowns and screens to actual receiver routes.

There are also ways that Moore can ease Elliott’s burden as a runner. Last season, Elliott faced eight or more defenders in the box on 24.7 percent of his rushes, the 20th-highest rate in the league. Compare that to Todd Gurley, who saw those looks on just 8.2 percent of his carries, thanks to the Rams’ usage of lighter personnel (they used 11 personnel on 77 percent of their rushing attempts; the Cowboys used three-receiver sets on only 53 percent of their runs). If Dallas feels compelled to build its offense around Elliott to justify his massive price tag in the coming years, there are smarter ways to do it than the ones the team has used in the past.

Ezekiel Elliott
Ezekiel Elliott
Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Compared to the other first-year play-callers around the NFL, Moore has one crucial advantage: He doesn’t have to spend this season learning the habits and preferences of his quarterback. Moore has been in offensive meetings—first as a teammate and then as a quarterbacks coach—with Prescott for three full seasons. The difference now is that he’s running them. “A lot of things, we’ve probably talked about in the past few years,” Moore says. “But once you’re in this role, you see how all the pieces fit together. It’s a wider-lens viewpoint. I think that’s good.”

As Moore has navigated the offseason and tried to determine what his version of this offense will look like, he’s tapped into his knowledge of Prescott’s preferences and devised plays that utilize his strengths. Kitna points to Prescott’s deep ball as a particularly impressive area of his game. “It’s tremendous,” Kitna says. “He throws it with great velocity, the right kind of air, the right kind of firmness.” Prescott’s 115.7 passer rating on deep throws ranked fourth in the NFL last season, behind only Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, and Aaron Rodgers. The issue was that the Cowboys hardly pushed the ball downfield: Just 10.8 percent of Prescott’s passes traveled 20 or more yards in the air, which ranked 24th out of 35 qualified quarterbacks. Moore would be smart to give vertical shots a stronger emphasis in this year’s offense, and the emergence of deep-ball specialist and second-year receiver Michael Gallup—who’s had a standout training camp so far—would only help matters.

Other concepts that Moore has introduced this summer, though, are designed to make Prescott uncomfortable. The offense features a robust menu of new pre-snap and different formations, which means Prescott has to read changing defensive alignments on the fly. “When the picture changes for the defense, the picture changes for the offense as well,” Moore says. “You’ve got to get used to that.” That’s been a challenge at times, but Moore says that’s what this time of year is for. “Sometimes my thing is, ‘Dak, I don’t want you to like every play,’” Moore says. “And that’s OK. That’s part of this deal. We’ve still got three or four weeks to work on this.”

One benefit of the increased motion will be the way it creates space for the Cowboys receivers. As defenses around the NFL have shifted toward more man coverage, the static looks Dallas showed under Linehan put the onus on his players to get open on their own. Last year, Prescott’s 67.7 completion percentage was 2.1 percentage points higher than his expected completion percentage (xCOMP), which is calculated based on receiver separation. A completion percentage higher than a player’s xCOMP typically means a quarterback performed better than his scheme would suggest. More motion and a higher percentage of stack and bunch formations—which teams like the Rams use to create free releases for their receivers—should provide Prescott with wider throwing windows this season. If Moore can consistently create more separation for Amari Cooper, Gallup, and the rest of the Cowboys pass catchers, it will go a long way toward making sure the Cowboys’ $30 million–plus yearly investment in Prescott is worth it.

As his quarterback gets a feel for his new role, Moore is doing the same. The scheme-creation part of his job is nearly done, but there are still areas to hone during situational periods in practice—like the two-minute drill and red zone calls—and tweaking to be done to the back-side concepts of certain route combinations. “You start bouncing ideas off [each other] with all these situational things,” Moore says of the interplay between him and his fellow coaches. “It’s good for me.”

Despite Moore’s youth, he carries a different demeanor than most of the offensive whiz kids who’ve come into the NFL in recent years. Sean McVay is always on, his overwhelming enthusiasm emanating off him as the words fly from his mouth at a breakneck pace. Kyle Shanahan is meticulous about every detail of his scheme, down to the inch. Moore is chiller, quieter. Laid-back, even. He exudes the kind of calm-in-the-storm vibe that helped him set winning records in college. That personality should serve him well as he takes over one of the sport’s highest-profile jobs at the very moment that the Cowboys’ two biggest names are transitioning from rookie-contract bargains to market-setting stars. The eyes of the football world will be on the Cowboys this fall. And the fate of America’s Team may just come down to whether its young offensive coordinator can stand the gaze.

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