By Mike Renner, senior analyst
You couldn’t turn on the TV over the past few months and not hear about all the different contract situations in Dallas. Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper, and La’el Collins all had their rookie deals expiring over the next couple seasons, and it was (and still is) unclear whether the Dallas Cowboys have enough money to go around.
While much of the conversation centered on if they could make the numbers work, the bigger issue for us at PFF was should they make the numbers work? This was an offense that ranked only 19th last season in points per drive. Even after adding Amari Cooper, they were still shut out in a crucial late-season matchup with the Colts.
Why get salary-cap strapped to keep together a mediocre offense?
Through two weeks of the 2019 season, though, the offense has looked anything but mediocre. The Cowboys currently rank second in points per drive (3.47 after averaging 1.96 in 2018), and the two men who have yet to be extended – Amari Cooper and Dak Prescott – have been lights out. With new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore calling plays, the answer to the question of whether they should make the numbers work has been a resounding yes. Let’s look at precisely what changed.
The tweak in Dallas’ offense
While football is often complex, there are simple offensive tenets. Things like passing more often on early downs, using play-action, option football, motion and bunch sets have been proven to be more effective than their counterparts over time. In two of those areas, we’ve seen the Cowboys change drastically from 2018 to this year.
The first is play-action, where the Dallas offense has been leaving free yards on the table for years. There’s no excuse to have a rushing attack as feared as Dallas’ and only use play-action on 24.9 percent of dropbacks like Prescott did last season (which was 16th-ranked rate among starters).
We’ve seen the usage of play-action increase league-wide each of the past five seasons, and we haven’t hit the equilibrium point of too much play action. Matt Ryan led the league in its usage his MVP 2016 season, while Jared Goff led in 2017 and 2018.
Through two games this season, Prescott has used it on 43.1 percent of his dropbacks – second to only Lamar Jackson among starters. That’s an enormous difference and amounts to nearly another play action pass on one out of every five Prescott dropbacks. Unsurprisingly, Prescott has been torching opponents with it. On his 27 play-action attempts, he has completed 25 passes for 333 yards, four touchdowns and a passer rating of 157.6.
More movement, more yards
The increase in play-action has been an obvious boon for the offense, but a more subtle improvement has come via their added usage of pre-snap motion. Dallas has used motion on 80 of their 137 offensive snaps this season. That’s on pace for 640 such snaps for the season after running only 417 last year. That figure ranks third-most in the NFL, and the only teams that have run more than the Cowboys are the Patriots and Ravens.
It isn’t a coincidence that those are three of the top four teams in terms of points per drive. Motion often times makes defenses tip their hand pre-snap and, if nothing else, forces them to communicate effectively to adjust to the new formation. It takes little added effort from the offense and is yet another way to pick up free yardage.
All of these have come together to transform the “stale” Cowboys offense into one of the most exciting in the league. It helps that Prescott is playing the best football of his career, but at the same time, he’s being put in the best situation of his career.
Unfortunately for the Cowboys, though, Prescott’s price tag only skyrockets with each passing game.
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