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Dallas Cowboys Offensive Play Calling Takes a Conservative Turn

It was a disappointing loss for the in New Orleans on Sunday night. In the 12-10 loss to the Saints, the Cowboys looked like a shell of itself, generating only two scoring drives. As disappointing as it was, it was an equally confusing performance for a team that had been creative and explosive through the first three weeks of the season under new .

This offense, led by Kellen Moore looked more like the offenses that grew frustrating to watch over the last several years under .

On the night, the Dallas Cowboys only managed 257 yards of total offense and were just 4-11 converting on third down. The Cowboys led the NFL in third-down conversion rate at 58.1% through three weeks. Coming into week four, the Cowboys had averaged 7.6 yards per play, which was second in the NFL to only the . Last night, the Cowboys accumulated only 4.8 yards per play.

Those numbers are just the objective evidence of what was a poor offensive showing for a team that had aspirations of being a contender in 2019.  This offense looked nothing like the club that was scoring almost at will the first three weeks of the season.

Sure, the did a good job and New Orleans is a tough place to play, but the and the play-calling didn't do enough to get the Cowboys in opportunistic looks against a Saints defense that had been fairly easy to score on through three weeks. The gameplan seemed eerily reminiscent of older Scott Linehan gameplans. It lacked any creativity or a focus to attack the defense, instead playing conservative and hoping the offense could do just enough to win the game. Unfortunately, they couldn't muster enough offense to take advantage of an excellent defensive performance.

A team that was using play-action on nearly 40% of their play calls through the first three weeks rarely used play-action on Sunday night, and I can't recall a play call that involved a read-option or a run-pass option.

Per Pro , the Cowboys used play action on just seven of their drop backs. On those plays, was 6/7 for 65 yards. That’s just 20% of their drop backs.

The Cowboys offense had a really hard time finding much success 10 or more yards down the field as well, completing few passes in the intermediate part of the field. Prescott and the completed only seven of 33 attempts beyond ten yards and only two passes greater than 20 yards down the field. One of which was in the final minute with the Saints defense playing prevent defense.

A team that attacked down the field throughout the first three games of the season, looked reluctant to take shots downfield, and instead settled for dump-off passes to , which were largely ineffective. As an offense, they still seem committed to running the ball even when the run game isn't effective. Elliott carried the ball 18 times and only gained 35 yards rushing. On first down, the Ezekiel Elliott ran the ball 10 times for only 23 yards. One of those was a three-yard carry when the Cowboys were looking at first and 20 with under two minutes to go in the first half. That carry didn't really get them anywhere and they eventually punted. That drive was symptomatic of a very different approach in week four than what we'd seen the previous three weeks.

When the Dallas Cowboys faced first and long situations the previous three weeks, they didn't go into their shell and get conservative. They hadn't let getting behind the chains to change their offensive approach, but their offensive approach was completely different throughout.

One of the concerns from the from Linehan to Kellen Moore appeared to rear its ugly head against the Saints. That regardless of this team's offensive coordinator, that a team would still resort to being a conservative ball-control, run-first type of football team. Because that's exactly what they were on Sunday night, and that's a concern.

We've seen what this offense is capable when they're an attacking group. In the third quarter when they got the ball, they went on the offensive to finally get some points on the board. It was the only time of the night where they looked like an offense in rhythm.

Kellen Moore just received a valuable lesson in and you hope that he learnable from this experience and becomes a better play caller moving forward. In a hostile environment, the Cowboys needed to play with more aggression than they did. They allowed the Saints to take them out of their identity on Sunday night. With a tough Green Bay opponent coming to town, Kellen Moore and the Dallas Cowboys offense needs to rediscover itself faster than the main character in an 80’s movie montage.

It’s still early in the season and these kinds of losses happen, you just hope they propel you to something big down the road. As smart and as good as Kellen Moore is at his job, this will be a learning opportunity that helps the Dallas Cowboys’ Offense improve.

John Williams
John Williams
Dallas Cowboys optimist bringing factual, reasonable takes to Cowboys Nation and the NFL Community. I wasn't always a Cowboys fan, but I got here as quick as I could. Make sure you check out the Inside The Cowboys Podcast featuring John Williams and other analysts following America's Team.

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Alan Hart

Good accurate article. The Cowboys should be forced to pay Scott Linehan royalities for copying his gameplay and play calling against the Saints.

John Williams

It was oddly eery. Like they looked at everything they’d done the first three weeks of the season and were like, “nah, we’re good”

Hopefully whatever led to that malfeasance is put on the shelf.

Todd Colbert

I have to wonder how much influence Garrett had on the game plan. Kellen has been getting a lot of credit for the success of the first three games. Garrett getting a little green with envy I wonder?


Linehan should get a week’s pay for this game.

I suspect the “collaborative” game plan this week was Jason Garrett’s.

Turtled again!

John Williams

I doubt it’s that. Garrett hasn’t been the play caller for the Cowboys since 2013. The 2014 and 2016 offenses were both top 5-10 in the NFL.

I do think they got conservative and that Garrett might have influenced that. That said, it’s on Kellen Moore to stay true to himself even in hostile environments.

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