Here are four moves the Cowboys should make to boost their chances of reaching Super Bowl LIV
From altering their offensive system to landing a starting safety, here's what the Cowboys need to do to win big
Over the next few weeks, the team here at CBSSports.com is taking a look at what some of the teams around the league can do to get themselves to Super Bowl LIV. You may have on the Seahawks, 49ers, Vikings, and Falcons, for example. We're continuing that series here today with America's Team, the Dallas Cowboys.
Dallas finished last season with a 10-6 record and the NFC East crown, vanquishing the Seahawks in the first round of the playoffs before losing to the eventual NFC champion Rams in Los Angeles. That divisional round loss exposed some of the flaws the Cowboys have, flaws which we'll advise they address in the space below.
1. Empower Kellen Moore to make deep systemic changes to the offense
We're starting here because honestly, if the Cowboys don't do this, the other suggestions we're making are largely irrelevant. If Dallas is going to have Moore -- who was a backup to Tony Romo and then Dak Prescott before becoming the Cowboys' quarterbacks coach last season -- merely replace former offensive coordinator Scott Linehan as a play-caller without also allowing him to dramatically reinvent the team's offensive schemes, there was really no point to having made the switch from one to the other.
Over the past few years, Linehan mixed some of his own schemes with the principles head coach Jason Garrett has had installed since he became the team's offensive coordinator back in 2007. Garrett himself said prior to last season that his offense borrows heavily from what Norv Turner ran when he was the Cowboys' offensive coordinator. To be clear, that last happened in 1993. It's safe to say the league has changed a whole lot in the ensuing 26 years.
So too should the Cowboys' offense, which became increasingly stale and last year reached the point of being antiquated. Even several Cowboys players said so. Their lack of confidence in the scheme and play-calling presumably stemmed from the team's downturn in offensive production over the years.
Far too many of the Cowboys' passing-down snaps last year involved them spreading the field with three receivers and a tight end, all of whom ran identical comeback routes to the sticks. It was predictable and incredibly easy for defenses to cover. Linehan's lack of creativity most often manifested itself in Prescott having to throw into tight coverage far too often. Last year, 17.7 percent of his passes were thrown into tight coverage, per NFL.com's NextGen Stats, a figure that ranked 29th out of 38 qualified quarterbacks. Prescott also threw short of the sticks by an average of 1.5 yards per pass, which ranked 28th out of the same group of 38 players.
The Cowboys also had Prescott throw just 11 passes on RPO (run-pass option) plays last season, per Sports Info Solutions, a figure that is frankly embarrassing given Prescott's obvious strength with RPO schemes. He averaged 9.5 yards per pass on those throws, which allow him to combine his skill at play-fakes, quickly reading defenses, and using his legs and athleticism to make plays on the perimeter if necessary. The Cowboys don't need to do this on every snap, but a considerable increase is certainly called for.
Prescott should also just be throwing after a play-action fake more often in general. Given the strength of the Cowboys' run game and opposing defenses' obvious inclination to stop Ezekiel Elliott, it should not be surprising that Prescott has been a far more efficient passer on play-action plays (where he is one of the best in the league) than on straight drop backs (where he is merely average) throughout his three-year career. Consider the following figures, per Pro Football Focus.
Again, the Cowboys don't need to be calling a play-action pass on every drop back, but 23 percent is far too low. They should be among the league leaders in play-action rate, up near teams like the Rams, who like the Cowboys base their entire offense around the versatile contributions of a star running back.
The Cowboys would also benefit from Moore dressing up the offense a bit more. They utilized pre-snap motion on only 31 percent of their offensive plays last season, per Sports Info Solutions, a rate that both ranked 24th out of the league's 32 teams and was well below the league average of 36.6 percent. Allowing a defense to know not only which routes were coming but also to maintain position for several seconds without having to shift into position to guard the correct receivers is making its job way too easy on it. Incorporating motion, particularly from players like their rookie fourth-rounder out of Memphis, Tony Pollard (whom the Cowboys describe as a WEB back, short for "whatever back"), would go a long way toward making sure defenses have to worry about defending more areas of the field than they have had to over the past few years.
It would be nice if "making sure defenses have to worry about defending more areas of the field" extended to allowing Prescott to throw deep more often -- or perhaps pressuring him into doing so, if the reason he hasn't been so far is due to his own reluctance rather than just the scheme. Prescott has been one of the most efficient deep passers in the NFL since he entered the league, but he rarely ever tests defenses with those types of throws. Passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air have accounted for only 9.4 percent of his attempts during his career, even though he has a 115.9 passer rating on such attempts, per Pro Football Focus.
The Cowboys tried to have Prescott make things work with a skeleton crew of receivers during the early portion of last season, but that did not come close to working out. They made a move for Amari Cooper around mid-season, and once they stopped rotating receivers in and out of the lineup and settled on Cooper, Michael Gallup, and Cole Beasley, things got quite a bit better. Beasley signed with the Bills during the offseason but he's been replaced by Randall Cobb, and both Pollard and Tavon Austin have experience as slot men and running backs. This should be a far better situation for Prescott than the one he was in last season, but it will only be so if Moore changes things up significantly enough.
Putting Prescott in better position to succeed will also have the added benefit of loosening things up for Elliott to run the ball down the defense's throat, which fits well with what the Cowboys really want to do anyway.
2. Add starter-quality help at safety
The Cowboys responded not by springing for one of the other top available safeties, but signing George Iloka to a one-year deal and drafting Texas A&M's Donovan Wilson in the sixth round. Iloka is not necessarily a fit as the kind of strong safety they need (he's been primarily a free safety during his career), and while the Cowboys did get strong contributions from incumbent free safety Xavier Woods when he was just a sixth-round rookie in 2017, they cannot reasonably count on getting the same from Wilson. Most rookie sixth-rounders are lucky to make the roster, let alone become as starter.
Luckily, there are still several high-caliber safeties sitting on the open market. Dallas checked in on Eric Berry earlier this offseason and reportedly had concerns about his medicals, but given that the compensatory pick deadline has now passed and that he is likely to come cheaper than he would have earlier in the offseason, it's worth checking in with him again. Similarly, former Broncos safety Darian Stewart would make for a good fit in that role. If they'd rather double up on deep safety types, they could take a look at Tre Boston and/or Glover Quin. But they should not be satisfied with coming into the season with Jeff Heath as the starter again -- no matter how much more they like what he brings to the table than analyst types do.
3. Add depth along the defensive line
They added Robert Quinn via trade, Kerry Hyder and Christian Covington in free agency, and Trysten Hill (UCF) and Joe Jackson (Miami) in the draft, but given the struggles of 2017 first-rounder Taco Charlton and the plateau 2016 fourth-rounder Maliek Collins seems to have hit, they would do well to add some depth both inside and outside. Doing so would allow for captain Tyrone Crawford to play the kind of versatile role they seemingly prefer for him, while taking pressure off Hill and Jackson to produce right away and Quinn and DeMarcus Lawrence (more on him in a second) to carry the pass-rushing load.
Interior players like Ndamukong Suh and Muhammad Wilkerson are likely out of Dallas' price range, though they could re-enter the picture if the team adds cap room via extensions for Prescott and/or Cooper. They took a look at former Seahawks draft pick Malik McDowell earlier this offseason, and he makes sense as a depth target. If nobody is going to sign former Chargers tackle Corey Liuget, they should look in his direction as well. Plus, players like Dion Jordan or Wes Horton could help on the edge.
4. Get defensive stars healthy again
The Cowboys lavished Lawrence with a mammoth new contract earlier this offseason, signing him to a five-year, $105 million deal that contains $65 million in guarantees. The parties agreed to the deal far earlier than the July 15 franchise-tag deadline due to the shoulder surgery Lawrence needed to have.
He played with the injury the last two years as he broke out and then solidified himself as an elite edge rusher so it shouldn't affect his performance too much moving forward, but there is no guarantee right now that he'll be ready for the start of the season. With only Quinn as a reliable pass rusher on the edge right now, that would be a disaster-level scenario for Dallas, so they need to do everything they can to get him healthy by the time Week 1 rolls around.
The same can be said for cornerback Byron Jones, who is recovering from hip surgery after having his best NFL season in his first year under Kris Richard. Jones is by far the team's best option on the outside, and while they have some strong depth behind him in Anthony Brown, Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, and rookie Michael Jackson (Miami), none of those players is capable of erasing a receiver in the way Jones can. And with the Cowboys' issues at safety alongside Woods, not having Jones in the lineup would be a major issue.
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