The Cowboys' 2018 season ended last night with a disappointing playoff loss to the Los Angeles Rams. And though it doesn't feel like it today, Dallas can approach this it offseason with a lot of optimism and confidence for the future.
Today isn't even the darkest point of the season. Sure, a playoff loss is discouraging. But the Cowboys were on the road against a team that went 13-3 and was well rested after their bye week. The Rams were the better team, by all measures, and they simply did what they were supposed to do.
No, the darkest hour for Dallas in 2018 came after Week 9. Coming off their bye week and having just added Amari Cooper, the Cowboys fell flat at home against the Tennessee Titans. The team seemed lost and unmotivated, and the fall to 3-5 felt like more than just another bad day.
Don't forget the mood following that game. Jason Garrett seemed closer to being fired than ever before, and even Dak Prescott's future with the Cowboys was in question. There was a sense that Jerry Jones might blow the whole thing up.
But then a came a road win in Philadelphia. Then another in Atlanta. The Cooper trade started paying dividends and the Cowboys started looking like a different team.
Even the win on Thanksgiving over Washington, which raised Dallas' record to 6-5, didn't erase all concerns. The Redskins, Eagles, and Falcons were all average-or-less teams. Many felt the Cowboys were just padding their record against the weak.
And then they beat the New Orleans Saints.
The Saints, winners of 10-straight games and 10-1 overall, could barely function offensively against the Cowboys' defense. It was one of the biggest upsets of 2018 and a sign that there was something special happening in Dallas.
The Cowboys went from a 3-5 disappointment to a 10-6 division champion. They won a playoff game against a Seattle Seahawks team that many felt were superior.
And even last night, down 20-7 and seemingly outmatched in every way, Dallas kept fighting.
There will be an entire offseason to work on the technical issues that hurt the Cowboys this year. A new offensive coordinators, hopefully getting Travis Frederick back, development across the board for a very young defense; these and other things can all be addressed in the months ahead.
But a team's personality and spirit, those aren't so easy to change. And what we saw from Dallas this year says that this team has all the heart needed to win a championship.
Some of that came from Kris Richard, the unofficial defensive coordinator who appears close to staying with the Cowboys now instead of taking a head coaching job elsewhere. While the Dallas' defense was good in 2017, it rose to a new level this year.
If Richard is back next season, and if Dallas can find some better X's and O's on offense, then this is a coaching staff who can win a championship.
In only 15 games this year, and despite numerous health issues on the offensive line and a weak passing attack, Ezekiel Elliott still led the league in rushing. He reminded any who doubted it after 2017 that he is the best pure runner in the game, and he'll back next year.
Dak Prescott has plenty of warts as a quarterback, and hopefully some of those will get worked out this offseason. But he established himself as the true leader of the team this year, filling the void left by Jason Witten's retirement. He never quits and his teammates never quit on him, and that's vital for any team seeking playoff success.
Dallas' trade for Amari Cooper, even at the high price of a first-round pick and his impending new contract, seems to have been the right move. He opened up the offense and now gives Dallas a true nucleus to build on, rather than a big hole to fill.
Even without that first-rounder in the 2019 draft, the Cowboys will still have plenty of resources to work with this offseason.
They have enough cap space to work with and can create more with some simple moves, such as releasing Sean Lee. They will need to figure out DeMarcus' Lawrence contact and decide if they want to re-sign Cole Beasley, but the roster gets pretty easy to deal with from there.
So yes, this can be a time of optimism. We're all licking last night's wound, but disappointment shouldn't lead to despair.
The wait of another offseason isn't fun, but your Dallas Cowboys are closer to a championship right now than they've been in a long time.
5 Biggest X-Factors for 2019 Dallas Cowboys
As the Dallas Cowboys have put together this 2019 team, they have a mix of constants and variables that will hopefully produce a winner. Today, we're going to look at those x-factors; the players or other circumstances who have a wide range for potential impact. How could these potentially swing the results for this season?
Constants are guys like Zack Martin, DeMarcus Lawrence, and Ezekiel Elliott. If they're on the field then they're some of the best at what they do. I also believe that we'll continue to get Pro Bowl play from the likes of Dak Prescott, Byron Jones, Leighton Vander Esch, and other studs from last season.
As for the x-factors, the biggest every year, for every team, is health. One bad injury can take a 12-4 contender down to a 4-12 weakling, as the Cowboys experienced in 2015.
We're not talking about health issues or suspensions today. Assuming all of our projected players are present and playing, whose impact on the field could create the biggest swing from 2018 to this season?
Our list contains two new additions from free agency who could cause some big ripples. There are also two returning players whose continued development could work wonders. And then there's also a change in Dallas' coaching staff, which you likely have just guessed, that could have the biggest impact of all.
In fact, let's start there.
Kellen Moore, Offensive Coordinator
Will the Cowboys' change at OC lead to a more explosive, less predictable offense? They must think so, having handed the job to Moore despite his having only one year of experience in a coaching role.
Scott Linehan's run was far from bad. Over his five seasons the Cowboys won three division titles and two playoff games. The only losing season was when they lost Tony Romo in 2015 and didn't have a Dak Prescott to replace him.
But Linehan's tenure was also marked by an offense that every armchair coach in Cowboys Nation could predict. There was little razzle and even less dazzle; Dallas ground out wins on the strength of the run game and offensive line.
The old school approach works up to a point, as we've seen with four winning seasons out of the last five, but is it really the best way to go? The fact that all four teams in conference title games last year, Kansas City, Los Angeles, New England, and New Orleans, have more modern-styled offenses should tell you something.
It seemed to tell the Cowboys something, leading to the switch from Linehan to Moore. Will Kellen get more creative with the versatile skills that Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott offer? Will he actually throw some passes to a fullback with receiving ability like Jamize Olawale? What about gimmick players like Tavon Austin or rookie Tony Pollard?
If Moore is the real deal as an offensive guru, this Dallas offense could do some special stuff in 2019. It would be the biggest personnel change of the offseason, on or off the field.
DE Robert Quinn
It's been a long time since Dallas had two true studs at defensive end; DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer were the last pair that could consistently threaten from both sides. By signing veteran Robert Quinn to be DeMarcus Lawrence's new wingman, the Cowboys are hoping to restore that dynamic.
Still just 29 years old, Quinn should have plenty offer. He's been a double-digit sack man three times in his career and has averaged 7.5 sacks over the last two seasons.
Last year, Dallas got solid play from Tyrone Crawford and Randy Gregory at times but they weren't consistent enough. Quinn not only bring a greater track record for pass rushing, but he doesn't present any of the current problems that Crawford or Gregory have with legal issues and/or possible suspensions.
That said, Quinn does have plenty of NFL mileage at this point. He has shown some decline the last few years, and if that continues then he may not make the impact we're hoping for. In that case, Dallas pass rush may look the same as it has the last few years.
Lawrence has been great, but we saw the Cowboys' inability to get to Jared Goff in their playoff loss to the Rams. There were zero sacks that day for Dallas, and only one QB hit (Jaylon Smith) the entire game.
If the Cowboys want to get back to the NFC Title game then they need more. Hopefully Robert Quinn can bring it.
WR Randall Cobb
As I said before, Amari Cooper should be as good as ever now that he gets an offseason to work with the team. Michael Gallup's progress from a strong rookie season is already reportedly on point. That leaves Cobb, the free agent replacement for Cole Beasley, as a major x-factor on offense.
Losing Beasley has the potential to hurt this team far more than we want to admit. He was Dak Prescott's security blanket for three years; his favorite receiver when the going got tough. No player was more trusted to get open, make the catch, and fight for the needed yards.
That sort of pressure won't be put all on Randall Cobb's shoulders. Cooper and Gallup will be a better pair to work with than any Beasley ever had. They will help mitigate the risk that Cobb has lingering injury issues, or doesn't acclimate quickly to his new offense.
But as the Cowboys hopefully shift to a more modern and innovative offense, Cobb brings valuable experience from his time with the Packers. He was part of six playoffs teams, and made many key plays to help Green Bay have sustained success during most of his time there.
If healthy, Cobb has the skills to replace Cole Beasley and perhaps even eclipse him. He was once a 1,200-yard receiver as the second option behind Jordy Nelson.
If he still has that gear in him, the combination of Cobb, Cooper and Gallup may give Dallas the most dangerous trio of receivers it's seen in decades.
CB Chidobe Awuzie
Switching Byron Jones back to CB last year proved a strong move, helping Dallas get to the playoffs and getting Jones to his first Pro Bowl. The Cowboys are hoping that Awuzie, entering his third season, will emerge as another standout performer at cornerback.
Awuzie, the Cowboys' second-round pick in 2017, had a slow start in his sophomore year but improved as the season went along. He should compete with Anthony Brown for the starting job, and at the least be Dallas' nickel CB this season.
With the Saints, Packers, Patriots, and Rams all on the 2019 schedule, plus two games with the Eagles, the Cowboys need a solid secondary. They need to make opposing QBs think twice about which side of the field they want to try and throw to.
Awuzie has flashed his potential these first two seasons, but now it's time to keep it on full display. Year Three is when most guys, and especially one taken in the second round, should be blossoming into the players they're going to be for the long haul.
If Chidobe takes that next big step forward then Dallas' defense could be the best in the league. The compound effect of improved coverage and a stronger pass rush would have exponential benefits.
TE Blake Jarwin
If Jarwin can do anything close to his Week 17 performance over the course of an entire year, he'd be one of the top tight ends in the game. That's the excitement level some have around the assumed 2019 starter.
Blake's not going to have those kind games often. The Giants were barely playing in that finale, likely already focused on how to screw up their draft. But it did give us our first full taste of Jarwin's receiving skills and athletic potential.
The Cowboys and Jason Witten swear that the returning legend is only here to support and help, and that the majority of snaps will still go to the young talent. If Jarwin can build on last year, and learn some things from one of the all-time greats, he could be a major new weapon in the 2019 offense.
Also helping could be the switch Kellen Moore as coordinator, who will hopefully find more creative ways to utilize all players. Perhaps we'll see Jarwin line up in spots that Scott Linehan never thought of, or was just never able to use while he still had Jason Witten in his twilight years.
Whether it's Jarwin or Dalton Schultz, Dallas will hopefully get some more firepower out of the TE position this year. As teams hopefully focus on stopping guys like Amari Cooper and Ezekiel Elliott, we could see huge plays by the tight ends if they're able to take advantage.
Kellen Moore on Jon Gruden’s QB Camp Reveals Offensive Philosophy
When Kellen Moore left Boise State for the NFL, he was the winningest quarterback in college football history with 50 wins in four seasons as the Broncos signal caller. Moore was a great college quarterback and was a part of an offense that took advantage of the things that he did really well; reading the defense and throwing with accuracy and anticipation.
Jon Gruden when he was with ESPN brought quarterbacks in from each draft class for a film session and to work out on the field.
Boise State Quarterback, Kellen Moore went on Jon Gruden's QB Camp show. Watch the full episode here.
Since Kellen Moore was promoted to offensive coordinator from quarterbacks coach, we've been trying to decipher what his philosophy might be. Moore himself gave us some insight when he talked about wanting to be "multiple" on offense. Basically, Moore wants to present similar concepts throughout the game plan but use formations and personnel groupings to provide variation and to keep defenses off balance.
If you have the time, go watch Moore's segment from Jon Gruden's Quarterback camp. It is pretty enlightening.
Here are a few highlights from the segment.
Multiple is a word we heard Kellen Moore use last week when asked to describe his offensive philosophy and he used it again in his interview with Jon Gruden.
The goal is to make the offense look as confusing as possible to the defense. Of their offense at Boise, Moore said, "it's a lot of the same concepts, a lot of ways of doing the same thing." Meaning they might run the same concepts out of 12 personnel that they run out of 11 or 21 personnel. The play concepts don't get diverse or complicated, the formations and personnel groupings are what gets diverse and complicated. Regardless of the formation, the offense will look similar. All in the hopes of keeping the defense guessing.
"Anticipation is built Monday through Friday."
Jon Gruden highlighted a play where Kellen Moore through a shallow post to a wide receiver that wasn't yet on the screen yet. Moore saw from the defensive alignment that the player would be open and was able to get the ball to the spot where the wide receiver could run under it and get the ball.
If there's one thing that's been a bit of a knock against Dallas Cowboys Quarterback Dak Prescott is that he struggles with anticipation. More often than not, he has to see it open before he throws it. This is an area that Kellen Moore and even new Quarterbacks Coach Jon Kitna can help Dak.
If Dak can starting seeing receivers open before their open and throwing it before they come open it would be a huge step in his development as a quarterback. Moore's use of pre-snap motion and formation variation will help Dak to diagnose the defense and know where to go with the ball before the ball is snapped more often.
Use of Pre-snap Motion
During the playoff loss to the Los Angeles Rams, it looked like the Rams were using presnap motion on just about every play. With Moore on board, it looks like the Cowboys are going to be taking a similar approach, and for Moore and for offenses that use a lot of pre-snap motion, there's a purpose.
Moore described that each motion is designed for a specific purpose on each play. They used motion to try and gain an advantage. One way they could gain an advantage by using presnap motion is to force the defense to show a tell on the coverage they're in. Using pre-snap motion also helps them find more favorable matchups.
One thing that I found interesting is that then Boise State Head Coach Chris Peterson put the team through a shift and motion period at the beginning of each practice so that everyone would know their motions and the purposes behind them.
Another purpose in using presnap motion was as Gruden noted, "when there's communication, there's miscommunication." Sometimes players get the right checks when a player goes in motion, but sometimes the motion can leave a player wide open for a big play because of miscommunication.
Expect the Dallas Cowboys to use a lot of pre-snap motion with all of their personnel. The wide receivers and tight ends will be coming across the formation and you'll see the running backs motioning in and out of the backfield.
All in the hopes of finding a favorable look.
In the Red Zone
Gruden asked Kellen Moore, "How come at Boise State you have so many gadget plays in the red zone?" Moore responded to be "creative, open to different ideas, concepts" and they "do a great job of game planning."
If there's an area where the Dallas Cowboys struggled consistently throughout the 2018 season it was in the red zone. They were one of the worst teams in the NFL at scoring points inside the 20-yard line.
Getting creative with their play calling in the red zone can help keep teams off balance and not just honing in on Ezekiel Elliott and the running game. Trick plays or gadget plays can help open things up in the middle of the field for the running game by forcing teams to think about the boundary and the passing game.
One thing I noted from watching some Kellen Moore highlights recently was how many touchdowns they scored using play action. It wasn't every play, but it felt like it. With the run game that the Dallas Cowboys have, play action can be an incredible weapon if they were to open it up and use it more frequently.
In the red zone in particular, when teams are so concerned with Ezekiel Elliott, using play action to pass could lead to some easy scores.
If the Dallas Cowboys want to get back to the playoffs with hopes of making a run at the Super Bowl, they have to get much better in the red zone. You can't settle for field goals as frequently as they did in 2018 and expect to win a lot of games.
Other Interesting Notes
Gruden highlights it on the show, and I found it fascinating that Boise State would flex out their left tackle into the slot and sometimes out wide beyond the hash mark.
When asked about it, Moore said, "his job is to occupy space." What it does is create misdirection by getting the defense to think about what that left tackle is doing out there. On one play in particular, it led to an all-out blitz by the defense and Moore hit them for a touchdown on a vertical route.
I don't imagine we're going to be seeing Tyron Smith lined up in the slot, but it's a sign of the potential creativity that comes with Kellen Moore. Even Gruden admitted he'd never seen that formation before.
One of the other notes that I found particularly interesting was the way they used silent counts. Often we see quarterbacks use their leg to signal to the center that they're ready for the ball. Sometimes, it's the center turning his head that indicates the snap is coming. At Boise State, they used leg kicks, one hand, two hands, and the center head bob to keep the defensive line from guessing the snap count.
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It remains to be seen if Kellen Moore is going to be a good offensive play caller in the NFL, but from what we know about him to this point, it's going to be exciting and fun to find out. The goals of his offense appear to be to find mismatches, create confusion, use misdirection, and be able to anticipate where to go with the football.
Moore's greatest strengths as a quarterback were his football I.Q., his preparation, his ability to communicate with the offensive coordinator and the rest of the offense, and their ability to make in-game adjustments. If he's able to help Dak Prescott see the game better, anticipate where to go with the ball better, make quicker decisions, and help the offense be better in the red zone, the Dallas Cowboys could have an unstoppable offense in 2019.
We don't know if they'll be able to do those things, but after hearing Moore talk about offensive football, I'm ready for the Dallas Cowboys to line up in September so we can find out.
How Does DT Christian Covington Factor in Cowboys 2019 Plans?
In what's become an almost forgotten move from this offseason, the Dallas Cowboys signed free agent Christian Covington in March to add depth at defensive tackle. After four years with Houston, Covington joins the Cowboys as they work to find consistency and increased solidity in the middle of the line. Can Christian help them do that in 2019?
Dallas gave Covington just a one-year, $1.5 million contract as 2019 free agency began. He is being asked to convert to a 4-3 DT after playing DE in the Texans' 3-4 defense.
In four years as a backup, Covington amassed 7.5 sacks and 65 tackles. He's coming off a career-high 3.5 sacks in 2018 in just 12 games. That's solid production for a 3-4 DE, and especially one whose job is to help set up guys like J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney to get to the quarterback.
The Cowboys have seen the transition work before. In 2013, Jason Hatcher had a breakout year with 11 sacks after converting to a 4-3 DT. That was Rod Marinelli's first year coaching in Dallas.
Marinelli must think he can do something with Covington as well. Dallas signed Christian just one day after free agency opened, clearly having targeted him ahead of time.
No, I don't think Covington is going to break out the way Hatcher did. And the Cowboys clearly felt they needed more help when they drafted DT Trysten Hill in April.
But the Covington addition shouldn't be ignored as we project who makes Dallas' 53-man roster this season.
Right now Dallas has Maliek Collins, Antwaun Woods, and Daniel Ross returning from last year's team. They've added Covington and Hill this offseason, and also still have Tyrone Crawford who can play on the inside.
Basic roster math offers little chance that all six of these players make the team. So who's most in danger?
Crawford has the bad contract and the potential for a suspension with his current legal issue. But he's also valuable for veteran leadership, as a previous team captain, and his versatility as a DE option.
Maliek Collins is entering the final year of his rookie deal, and the drafting of Trysten Hill suggests that he probably doesn't return in 2020. Dallas can save about $2 million by trading or releasing Maliek this year.
Dallas brought back Daniel Ross because it was easy; an Exclusive Rights Free Agent with a minimal contract. That said, he has flashed some ability and is more than just a camp body.
The only locks are the rookie Hill and Antwaun Woods, who was looking like the team's best DT by the end of last season. The rest of the depth chart will be some combination of Collins, Covington, Crawford, or Ross, and that's if undrafted rookie Daniel Wise doesn't also push for a roster spot.
It'd be easy dismiss Covington given his minor contract and lack of time in the system. But Dallas signed him for a reason, and they made it their very first move when free agency began.
If I had to put money on who does and doesn't make the team in 2019, I'd bet on Christian Covington before Maliek Collins or Tyrone Crawford. All three could make it, but I'm less confident in the other two.
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