Right, right, right: It came against a crummy opponent whose ineptitude no doubt made things far easier than they had to be, and it was only Week 1. But in terms of personnel, play design, and execution, the Cowboys on Sunday showed they’re capable of being as forward-thinking and efficient as any offense in the NFL.
New Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, just two years removed from being Dallas’s practice squad QB, had a sparkling debut in a 35-17 win over the Giants. Moore is a product of Boise State, where he once quarterbacked an offense that thrived on deception, pre-snap motion, and getting the ball into space by reacting to what the defense was giving it. Sunday, he incorporated many of those concepts into the Cowboys’ attack.
Play action and passing on early (first and second) downs should be the hot new trends for NFL offenses, according to most data analysts. And the Cowboys put both tactics to good use against the Giants. Dak Prescott used play action on 46.9 percent of his dropbacks—up from 24.9 percent last year, per Pro Football Focus. On those play-action throws, per PFF, Prescott was an astounding 14-for-15, with 13.8 yards per attempt, and three touchdowns. He saw pressure on just four of his 32 dropbacks, also per PFF, and finished the game with a perfect (158.3) passer rating.
Even with Ezekiel Elliott back in the fold, the Cowboys weren’t afraid to air it out on early downs, where teams tend to have a better success rate (50 percent of needed yards on first down, 70 percent on second down) than when rushing. In the first three quarters Sunday, the Cowboys threw on 57 percent of early downs, with a 71 percent success rate, and 11.3 YPA, according to analyst Warren Sharp’s data. By the end of the third quarter, the Cowboys were comfortably in front, 35-10.
The Cowboys went heavy on pre-snap motion, with NFL Network’s Graham Barfield calculating that they used motion on 73 percent of their snaps (versus 45 percent last season). But it’s how they used that motion that made what they did so effective.
Here, on a second and 10 from the Giants’ 38 in the first quarter, was an example of three shifts they used before Randall Cobb did a ghost motion that was designed to pull the defense away from where the ball wound up. NFL Network’s Brian Baldinger took a closer look at all the deceptive elements that made this play work so well:
The data says there’s no correlation between play action success and a strong or established running game. Two plays later, Prescott and the Cowboys demonstrated exactly how this looks. Elliott isn’t even on the field, but as Prescott faked a handoff to Tony Pollard, two Giants linebackers plus safety Antoine Bethea got sucked in. The result was an easy touchdown to tight end Blake Jarwin:
As ex-Giants offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz told The Athletic:
“Bethea just blows the coverage. Unless he’s trying to cheat, but I don’t know what he’s cheating there for. It looks like the top [of the screen] is running Cover-2 and the bottom is running Cover-3 and that’s how you end up with this. It could be quarters and Bethea is the one that’s just messing this up. It’s a two-high shell and Bethea is running a one-high shell.”
But it was the play action that caused Bethea to bite. A second-quarter TD pass to Cobb that covered 25 yards similarly used play action to freeze several defenders, thus allowing a pass catcher to waltz freely into the middle of the field, where it was easy pickings for Prescott:
On another TD, it was Prescott’s ability to sell the fake in combination with an outside zone blocking scheme to the left that created the space for a cakewalk of a TD to Witten to the right. Here’s Baldinger breaking it down:
This kind of stuff served to make the Cowboys’ runs that much better, too. Check out how Tavon Austin did a ghost motion toward the left as Witten pulled to the right just before Prescott handed the ball to Zeke. Three Giants defenders wound up pursuing Witten, even as Zeke dashed into the end zone on the opposite side of the field:
All that movement pre-snap can basically end a play before it begins. On Amari Cooper’s 21-yard touchdown catch just before the half, the Cowboys motioned Cobb into trips on the right side ...
... which left Cooper matched up alone against a rookie:
Last year, under then-coordinator Scott Linehan, Dallas’ offense ranked 24th in DVOA. This year, with center Travis Frederick back from injury, tight end Jason Witten back from mumbling his way through the Monday Night Football booth, Zeke under contract, and Cobb added to replace Cole Beasley in the slot, the Cowboys have a deep and talented offense around Prescott. What Moore largely did on Sunday was maximize how all those pieces fit together.
It’s easy to overreact after one game, and the Giants are hardly the most formidable defense the Cowboys will see this year. But Moore has implemented exactly the sort of schematic flourishes that are increasingly difficult for defenses to stop. In a loaded NFC, it will be fascinating to watch how the Cowboys stack up. Because of the Cowboys’ outsized popularity, the league loves putting Dallas on national TV—five prime-time games this fall, plus as many as seven others in the 4:25 p.m. (ET) late afternoon doubleheader slot—but barring something unforeseen, this really ought to be a team worth watching.