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Nick at Nite

Nick at Nite: Cowboys sending unwrapped package to SF


FRISCO, Texas — When the Cowboys take the field on Sunday night for their redemption game against the San Francisco 49ers, there will be a little more juice, a little more life in everyone donning the silver and blue than usual. The opportunity to avenge not only last season's playoff loss, but 2021's loss in the playoffs as well, lies ahead and at the front of the mind.

As the offense prepares to take the field on Sunday night, they will bring with them a newer offensive system than what they've shown San Francisco in the past with Mike McCarthy now calling plays. But what's unique to this matchup specifically is not the opponent nor the man calling the plays.

It's the offense itself, in its entirety, that's still awaiting to be unleashed.

It's rare that you can look up four weeks into the season, look at your offense and say that you've barely touched the surface of what's in your toolbag, but that's what we have with McCarthy's offensive system going into Sunday night's mega-clash on the road.

Typically at this point in the season, you're staring at an offense that can be mostly scouted based on what it's put on the field and on film through four weeks, but the Cowboys have had the rare luxury of not having to dig too deep into the offense through four weeks of the season which allows for a little more secrecy and a behind-curtain feel going into week five.

When you evaluate how the offense has gotten to this point, in three of the four games, the Cowboys have been able to mostly put things in auto-pilot in the second half in coasting to blowout victories. In the lone exception, the loss to Arizona, the offense was simplified down to its core from start-to-finish with three starting offensive linemen out.

The trend has especially stood out in the fourth quarter of the three blowout wins, as Dak Prescott has had to throw just 11 passes in the final 15 minutes of games not in Arizona, an average of only 3.67 passes per game, which speaks to the unnecessity of having to do literally anything late in games offensively.

In the loss to Arizona, it took the offense more than two quarters to complete a pass more than seven yards downfield as the offensive game plan with Tyron Smith, Tyler Biadasz and Zack Martin all out was simplified to an even quicker game than what the new 2023 Texas Coast offense has already been predicated around.

So, with so much still remaining in the bag and a big test against the 49ers looming, is there an advantage in not having to reveal too much to this point?

"I would say [an advantage] is definitely a possibility, especially in getting ready to go against the opponent that we're getting ready to go against," offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said on Monday. "They do what they do [San Francisco]. They don't change very often. They're just a really disciplined group. It is a good benefit for us."

What could that mean for what the Cowboys can show on Sunday night?

First and foremost, the vertical attack. In training camp, Dak Prescott and the offense was not afraid to unleash the long ball, and when you look at the success the offense had under Kellen Moore in pushing the ball down the field, there's no reason to completely abandon it. Bringing in a weapon like Brandin Cooks only further punctuates that the offense is still wanting to have a big vertical presence even if we haven't seen a whole lot of that through four games with Prescott only attempting eight passes to this point further than 20 yards downfield.

Speaking of Cooks, unleashing his skillset is something that can still be tapped into. Having just eight receptions for 66 yards in three games, getting one of – if not, the – fastest players on your team going can play a huge part in pushing the envelope forward against talented defenses such as San Francisco.

Lastly, the Cowboys have so many weapons that break loose in the open field, but the middle of the field where the most real estate is available hasn't been utilized to its fullest effect. Of Prescott's 136 attempts in 2023, only 26 (19-percent) have been across the middle of the field. That number narrows even more between the hashes with only five attempts (3.6-percent).

Stretching the seams is important to a West Coast style offense, and with weapons like CeeDee Lamb and even Jake Ferguson at your disposal to get open down the middle of the field, you have to use them.

Now, this is not a ridicule towards Mike McCarthy (yet) on this not happening. I'm more so seeing this as something that has not had to be unleashed quite yet.

But if there's any time to do it, you'll be hard-pressed to find a better one than when the Cowboys take the field on Sunday night at Levi's Stadium. Because in a game with that much stake and pride on the line in the NFC, it's safe to say that the package the offense has been delivering every Sunday may finally be ripped open like a young kid on Christmas Day in Santa Clara.

The only question that remains is if it will be coal or a dazzling gift in the form of a long-awaited victory against the Niners. See you Sunday night.

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