In two separate interviews this week, two of the Dallas Cowboys' biggest stars discussed two different philosophies related to the Cowboys offense. Their statements coincidentally relate to an ongoing conversation that's been taking place among the most analytical of Cowboys fans – whether the Cowboys should focus on developing the passing game or rely on the run and only pass the ball in opportune moments.
Although neither Dak Prescott nor Ezekiel Elliott was asked directly about choosing between the two outlooks, what they did say suggests that they would have differing responses if they had received a straightforward question on the matter.
On Thursday, in response to a question about having an aggressive mindset on offense, Dak Prescott replied, “I'm not gonna stop being aggressive. That's the belief in myself. That's Kellen's belief in me, and it's the belief in this offense.”
As he continued, Dak admitted that he needed to be smarter in certain situations and then added, “I've worked hard to get to where I am, and the confidence in myself, this team, this offense, and this passing game. And that's where the aggressive throws and that aggressive mindset [come] from, is the work that we've put into this.”
The statement somewhat contradicted a a commonly held fan theory that Dak and Kellen Moore are not in alignment when it comes to what's best for the offense. Prescott's mention of Kellen Moore's confidence in him as one of the factors motivating him to be more aggressive suggests that they are on the same page and that they both want to do more with the passing game.
Ezekiel Elliott had his chance to speak on the importance of the run game on Saturday when he and Tony Pollard did their first ever joint interview. They sat down with Michael Smith for NFL on NBC, and Smith asked about Jerry Jones' statement that the offense “goes as [Zeke] goes.”
“I think this offense [is going to] go as the run game [goes]. It might not be me. It might be Tony [Pollard]… It might be Malik [Davis],” Elliott said, “but I think the offense is gon' go through the run game, because when you look at the defense we got… all we gotta do is keep'em fresh… We gotta keep'em fresh, keep'em off the field as much as we can, and I just don't see a lot of teams scoring that many points on us.”
Elliott's statement was very much in alignment with what fans have heard head coach Mike McCarthy and several Cowboys players say about the importance of complementary football.
How This Might Play Out Against the Colts
It will be interesting to see which aspects of the offense are emphasized tonight when the Cowboys face the Colts. Almost every expert and analyst seems to agree that this competition will feature several mismatches that will work in the Cowboys' favor. This means that it just might be a good time for Dak to lean in to his aggressive side and go full send with the passing game.
When it comes to expected wins for the Cowboys, however, the term “trap game” comes up a lot. Those who see the potential for that being the case tonight point to the fact that the Colts defense is holding teams to 190.6 passing yards per game, 5th in the NFL. They also point to the fact that Dak Prescott historically has a worse game the more he passes. The sample size is pretty small since Dak has only played 6 games this year, but his worst passer ratings this year were in the two games where he passed 30 times or more. He also had the most interceptions during those games.
One of those two games was the loss to the Packers. Prescott had 46 passing attempts, but the offense only ran the ball 31 times. In the win against the Giants, however, the offense was a bit more balanced. Prescott had 30 passing attempts which included 2 interceptions. He ended up with a passer rating of 78.6, but during this game the Cowboys ran the ball 39 times. In the three other games the Cowboys won this year with Dak Prescott as the starting QB, it was also the case that there were more rushing attempts than passing attempts. This all points to the idea that the Cowboys have better results when they run the ball more than they pass. According to some, if Dak Prescott and Kellen Moore get baited into emphasizing the passing game, it could cause the offense to struggle unnecessarily.
When all of that is combined with the harder-to-quantify fact that “teams play the Cowboys different,” as Micah Parsons pointed out, a certain image begins to form. It's a scenario where a struggling Colts team is invigorated by the presence of Jeff Saturday,who still has that new-head-coach smell, and the potential for the special brand of bragging rights that comes along with a win over the Cowboys. Their defense forces some mistakes in the Cowboys' passing game. On the other side of the ball, they muster up the fortitude to play uncharacteristically well on offense, and the Colts pull off an upset in AT&T Stadium.
The Synergy of It All
In the Cowboys' most impressive win of the season, the Week 11 thrashing of the Minnesota Vikings, even though Dak Prescott only had 25 passing attempts, Cooper Rush added 5 more attempts to the offense's total when he took over in the 4th quarter. While the numbers presented above suggest that passing the ball more than 29 times is a recipe for disaster, this game with its 30 total passing attempts gives one reason to believe that Dak and Kellen have room to to have fun with the passing game as long as the runs balance that out.
The variety of weapons possessed by the Cowboys offense can lead imaginations to run wild with the number of ways that they could beat a team. In his recent interview, Ezekiel Elliott mentioned himself, Tony Pollard, and Malik Davis. Dak Prescott also runs the ball himself from time to time. Additionally, CeeDee Lamb has emerged as a solid WR1, and according to Lamb, Michael Gallup is also a No.1 wide receiver. The Cowboys offense also boasts a spirited yet fearsome group of tight ends who are known to get yards and TDs themselves. When the Cowboys are at their best, we've seen contributions from all of these players. Finding ways to get all of them involved is a bit impressive in itself.
On Thursday, Prescott said that some situations, especially 3rd and long, involve an evaluation of the risk vs the reward. He said he needed to get smarter about that. As quarterback, this means he needs to be smarter about when and how to pass the ball as well as when not to and what he should do instead. It sounds like conceptually he understands what needs to happen but the in-game evaluation and execution are what need work. This should actually be exciting for Cowboys fans. Instead of looking at the potential for a trap game, with the right adjustments to his own approach, there is actually even more potential for one of the best performances we might see from Dak Prescott this season.