The best NFL offenses of the past few seasons have had distinct philosophies: Sean McVay’s Rams and their outside zone run plays and play-action passes; Andy Reid’s Chiefs and their spread attack; the Ravens and their option-heavy running game led by Lamar Jackson. Those offenses were hard to defend, but it wasn’t so hard to figure out what made them good.
This season, the NFL’s highest scoring offense resides in Dallas, where the Cowboys are averaging 31.6 points per game. That unit, led by third-year offensive coordinator Kellen Moore and MVP candidate Dak Prescott, ranks fourth in DVOA and first in passing EPA, per RBSDM.com. And its success has the team just a half game out of the top spot in the NFC playoff race.
But unlike those high-powered offenses of the recent past, the Cowboys don’t have a clear ethos. Rather, they do a little bit of everything. Per Sports Info Solutions, Dallas doesn’t rank higher than 10th in any of the following categories: play-action rate, motion rate, no-huddle rate, or RPO rate. But it ranks fourth or above in success rate when using each of those concepts. The Cowboys do it all—and they do it all at a high level.
The Cowboys Do It All, and Do It All Well
|Concept||Usage rank||Success% rank|
|Concept||Usage rank||Success% rank|
To put it another way, the offense is like a restaurant with a big menu. It’s ambitious, and awfully hard to pull off. But Moore is doing just that. To understand where this philosophy—or lack thereof—comes from, and how Moore is running it, we have to go back to his days as one of the most prolific passers in NCAA history.
A decade before Moore took over as the Cowboys’ offensive coordinator, he played quarterback for one of the best offenses in college football history. From 2008 to 2011, Moore led a Boise State Broncos team that averaged at least 37 points per game in each of his four years as a starter and earned an NCAA record 50 wins in that span.
Those Boise State offenses weren’t just good; they were unique. Back when college offenses typically fell into one of three buckets—spread, pro style, or triple option—Boise State coach Chris Petersen used elements from all three. And the result was an ever-evolving scheme that was always a step ahead of the defenses that were so desperately trying to keep up.
In his 2010 treatise on Boise State’s offense for Smart Football, high school coach Mike Kuchar, who had spent time studying Petersen’s offense alongside Virginia Tech’s coaching staff, recalled a former Broncos assistant telling him, “We run plays; we don’t have an offense. It makes it difficult to defend.”
To Kuchar, that didn’t make much sense.
“I wondered how an offense can’t be a system,” he wrote. “Coordinators pride themselves on establishing identities: ‘It’s what we do’ is a common mantra among the coaching profession. … Well, apparently Boise was the Seinfeld of college football—their lack of identity is their identity.”
After studying the Broncos film, Kuchar started to understand how it all worked. Boise State wasn’t so interested in imposing its will on a defense. Instead, Petersen’s team wanted to present looks that forced the defense to make a choice—how to adjust to a certain motion or where to deploy extra bodies against a formation, which would inevitably leave the defense vulnerable somewhere on the field. In other words, the Broncos were letting opposing teams pick their poison.
Boise State’s offense used a variety of tactics to put the defense in these binds. They’d deploy odd personnel groupings, overloaded formations, and pre-snap motions and shifts. Petersen was constantly asking questions of the defense and making adjustments based on the answers.
If we put an extra lineman in a traditional fullback spot, how are you going to match up? What if we empty out the backfield and put four receivers to one side? If we have two tight ends to one side of the formation, and then shift them over to the other side right before the snap, will you be able to adjust in time?
All of that should sound familiar if you’ve watched the Cowboys offense this season. Moore has taken that underlying philosophy and applied it to maybe the most talented offense in the NFL. Unsurprisingly, the results have been quite good.
One method Boise State used to overload a defense was quad formations. These are empty backfield formations that put four receivers to one side and one receiver to the other.
The defense essentially has two options: Push extra defenders to the four-receiver side, leaving the isolated receiver one-on-one, or keep the weak-side safety over the isolated receiver, which gives the offense a numbers advantage to the four-receiver side. If the defense took that second option during Moore’s days under center, he would look to the four-receiver side, where someone should be open. If they left the isolated receiver one-on-one, he’d throw the slant all day.
The 2021 Cowboys are using quads in a similar fashion. They rank second in the NFL this season with 16 quads snaps, per Pro Football Focus, and it’s been a successful tactic. Moore dialed it up on two key passing plays in Dallas’s Week 6 win against New England. The first time, the Patriots pushed their coverage to the four-receiver side, leaving plenty of exploitable space on the weak side of the formation.
Instead of having the isolated receiver attack that space, though, Moore had him run a vertical route to clear out the defense, and Cedrick Wilson Jr. came over to fill that voided area.
The Cowboys went back to this formation in overtime. The Pats adjusted by leaving a zone defender in the area Wilson had attacked on the first play.
But with Wilson’s shallow route occupying that defender, CeeDee Lamb was able to sneak into the space left open behind the linebacker.
When Moore was in college, Petersen was constantly laying these traps for the defense. He’d show them one play that picked up a modest gain, figure out how they defended it, and make an adjustment to set up bigger swings later in the game.
“They wear you down by picking at 4- and 5-yard gains until they pop a big one,” Kuchar wrote in 2010. “Watching them on film, it’s never surprising they score, but to a football junkie, the methodology of how they score is a work of art.”
A decade later, Moore is setting up those big plays in a similar manner. In the Cowboys’ Week 1 game against Tampa, he called this run-pass option at the beginning of a first quarter drive. The Bucs load up the box, leaving the Cowboys with a two-on-one advantage on the outside, so Dak flips a quick pass out to Michael Gallup for a solid gain.
A few plays later, Dallas comes out in the same formation. Not wanting to give up another 8-yard gain (or worse), the Bucs sent an extra defender out to the perimeter to handle the screen pass. Only this time, the Cowboys faked the screen, got the defenders to jump the route, and threw it over the top to Lamb for the touchdown.
Here’s another example from the Cowboys’ win over the Panthers in Week 4. Dallas sends Amari Cooper on a jet motion across the formation and has him run a quick out route. The cornerback never opens up his hips, which keeps him in position to drive on the route, so Dak looks to the back side.
Later on in the game, the Cowboys came out in the same exact formation and sent Cooper on the same jet motion. Only this time, he ran a double move with the hope that the corner would play it the same way. He did, and Cooper got open for a long touchdown.
These complementary plays are by no means exclusive to Moore’s system, but all the tweaks the Cowboys make to similar-looking concepts make them difficult to stop. The defense might come into the week with a good answer for the quads formation, but what if the Cowboys throw an offensive lineman out there to the four-receiver side, as they did on the very first pass play against the Falcons on Sunday?
Moore is constantly asking these questions, as well as springing new ones on the defense each week. I can’t really blame Atlanta for not knowing how to defend a two-back, three-receiver set when one of those “backs” is actually a 300-pound lineman cosplaying as a traditional fullback.
The Falcons decided to match that look with a nickel defense in order to match up with Dallas’ three talented receivers, which meant a poor defensive back had to take on that guard’s block one-on-one. I’m sure you can guess how that played out.
On top of all these weird personnel groups and formations, Moore loves him some pre-snap motion. That’s another thing he took from Petersen’s offenses at Boise. The Broncos constantly shifted players around right before the snap, which forced defenders to make adjustments on the fly. If the defense has to communicate more than it’s used to, there’s an increased chance of miscommunication, which usually leads to good results for the offense. On this play, keep an eye on Panthers linebacker Haason Reddick after the Cowboys’ shift. He points out the open run gap, but before his teammates can adjust, the ball is snapped and Ezekiel Elliott is running through the gaping hole.
Those shifts can also give Prescott clues as to what kind of coverage the defense is playing. On this play against Carolina, Blake Jarwin motions inside and safety Jeremy Chinn follows him. That typically means the defense is in man coverage, and the Cowboys run a pick play that springs Jarwin open for a touchdown.
The fact that the Cowboys are able to effectively use all of these different tactics is what makes them so tough to defend. There is just so much to prepare for, and by the time you think you have them pegged, they’re already hitting you with a counter to your counter.
So why isn’t every team doing this? Well, no other teams have Prescott, who drew a Peyton Manning comparison from Panthers coach Matt Rhule given his skill at orchestrating plays at the line of scrimmage. Even playing at the highest levels of football, most quarterbacks aren’t capable of processing all of this information while mastering a thick playbook. Moore figured out how to do it at Boise State. And in Dak, Moore has found a pro version of himself. But when Prescott went down for the season in 2020, the Cowboys offense was less versatile, and the results weren’t nearly as impressive.
Cowboys ranks in net yards per dropback:— Timo Riske (@PFF_Moo) November 16, 2021
1st in 2019
22nd in 2020
1st in 2021 so far
The difference between these years is obvious and might be the most valuable/importoant player in the league right now.
As is always the case, a good scheme is nothing without the talent to run it. But that won’t stop teams from calling Moore about their head coaching vacancies in the coming months. Early this year, Dallas gave Moore a raise in order to keep him from being poached by his alma mater. Given the Cowboys success so far this season, and what it seems like they could accomplish in the next few months, Moore might end up as the offseason’s hottest coaching candidate. A bump in pay might not be enough to keep him around.
Like the defenses dealing with Moore’s offense, Jerry Jones may be faced with quite the dilemma: Does he let this play-calling prodigy walk out the door to keep Mike McCarthy around? Or does he make the bold choice to move on from a winning head coach in order to hold on to one of the keys for the team’s success? The more the Cowboys win, the more difficult that decision will become. And while it’s not a bad choice to have to make, it’s one Jones can’t afford to get wrong.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly attributed a Blake Jarwin touchdown to Dalton Schultz.