FRISCO, Texas — Explosive, Texas Coast sh-... er … um, let's start over. It's three weeks into the 2023 season and the Dallas Cowboys have yet to locate the explosiveness within their new-look offense, dubbed the "Texas Coast", and there are a variety of factors as to why that is, but the fact Mike McCarthy and Dak Prescott will need to start orchestrating hits like Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, and soon.
That's simply the reality of the situation, and it's one they'd both readily own up to, and a deep dive into the science of the dilemma yielded some very interesting results. This is the same offense that, while the defense got more than their fair share of shots in (e.g., Micah Parsons and Trevon Diggs took over training camp), Prescott got his blows in as well.
He regularly connected on the deep ball to players like CeeDee Lamb, Brandin Cooks, Michael Gallup and Jalen Tolbert; but that's all been mostly absent in games.
Wait, that's not correct, at least not entirely.
Believe it or not, but Prescott and the Cowboys are actually still taking deep shots down the field, though it doesn't feel like it at times. There's a reason you/I feel that way, though, and it's rather glaring when you know what you're looking for.
It's because, to this point, they've deleted the middle of the field from the play-calling.
Passes with 20+ yards of air time (Overall):
- 2022: 2 per game
- 2023: 2.3 per game
I know, right?
I know what you're thinking because I said the same thing when I looked into the comparison. Prescott and the Cowboys are actually throwing deep a bit more than they did last season. That means the problem isn't that they're taking fewer shots downfield overall, but rather the lack of success when Prescott does drop back and let it fly.
Now watch what happens next here.
Passes with 20+ yards of air time (Division of Field)
- Right: 143.8 passer rating
- Left: 132.2 passer rating
- Middle: 11.81 passer rating
- Right: 95.83 passer rating
- Left: 104.2 passer rating
- Middle: ZERO ATTEMPTS
As I said, the success rate is simply not there yet for the Cowboys, but more glaring is in how they're staying completely away from the middle of the field.
It's likely this is because that's where the timing/connection issues existed with Prescott and his receivers last season, and that resulted in several interceptions. It seems McCarthy has been content to stay away from that portion of the field entirely until further notice, but it also shrinks the opposing secondary's deep coverage responsibilities by one-third.
To be clear, it's not that the Cowboys don't throw in the middle of the field. It's that they don't throw beyond 20 yards down the middle, instead tasking their receivers to generate YAC (yards after the catch) once they snag a slant route or inside flat.
Fair enough, that's a staple of the West Coast offensive principles — get the ball out quickly and let your playmakers make the plays — but it can't be at the sacrifice of carving out an entire chunk of earth.
Here's how the rest of the Cowboys' pass attempts stack up in comparison to 2022:
Intermediate Air (10-19 yards of air time)
- 2022: 5.7 attempts per game
- 2023: 5.0 attempts per game
Short Air (0-9 yards of air time)
- 2022: 11.8 attempts per game
- 2023: 16.7 attempts per game
Negative Air (Behind LOS, e.g., screen plays)
- 2022: 3.3 throws
- 2023: 8.3 throws per game
[above stats per Next Gen Stats]
Ah, there it is. There's the evidence to support what I said above about the principles of the West Coast (read: Texas Coast) offense. Mathematically, the attempts that would usually go deep middle have been replaced with quick tosses behind the line of scrimmage — the increase in negative air passes having jumped a gargantuan 86.2 percent over last season.
This is, of course, by design.
And considering it's not cost them the ability to matriculate the ball down the field (they lead the NFL in drives that contain 10 or more plays), then it's feasible they don't *need* the middle of the field, and especially when you're also No. 1 in the league on first down but, admittedly, they're going to have to attack it sooner or later to keep defenses honest and covering every single blade of grass.
So when in the world might the Cowboys return to a high rate of explosiveness?
I started spelunking into the cavernous void of data to determine if there's any trend in Dallas that would lend to either a possible continued struggle to locate explosiveness or the opposite and, boy oh boy, did it take me on a ride.
I did an experiment that compared this season to the first three weeks of two others — 2019 and 2021 — to get an idea of what the Cowboys are up against and just how much they've changed for the better or for the worse.
You are going to both hate and love this.
- First 30 explosive plays from Week 1 through Week 3 (yards gained per play)
- Coaching comparison with similar offensive personnel/talent
- Pandemic year is a disqualifier (2020) due to upheaval of rules
This gives a more in-depth look at how McCarthy is faring as a play-caller in Dallas as compared to himself and Kellen Moore (2021) and against the combination of Jason Garrett and Kellen Moore (2019).
Do you want the bad news first, or the good news?
OK, bad news it is.
I knew you'd say that, by the way.
- 2023: 18.97 average yards per explosive play
- 2019: 25.6 average yards per explosive play
They were 37% more explosive in 2019 than they are so far in 2023.
Ouch. That's pungent. It stings the nostrils.
The Garrett/Moore combo was devastating for opposing defenses two seasons ago, and it led to Prescott being in the MVP conversation over most of the season — finishing with a career-high in yards (4902) to go along with 30 touchdowns to only 11 interceptions.
But, for a lot of reasons, the team finished at 8-8 and out of the playoffs and Garrett was shown the door to make way for McCarthy.
Now let's look at the first qualifying year for McCarthy, but with Moore as play-caller.
- 2021 (19.57 yards per big play): only 5% more explosive than 2023
"WOW." - You
"Exactly." - Me
Yes, I'm telling you that the first three games of this season are directly comparable to how the Cowboys started the 2021 season, when they finished 12-5 and made it to the playoffs as Prescott finished with a career-high in touchdowns (37) to fewer interceptions than in 2019. What I say next is really going to get your blood-brain barrier sizzling with optimism.
The 2021 season ultimately ended up being only four percent less explosive than the Garrett/Moore combo in 2019, by the way.
Only. Four. Percent.
In 2021, the Cowboys went from struggling to find explosiveness to becoming the most explosive team in the entire league beginning in … wait for it … Week 4 … and continuing that dominance en route to a four-game win streak after a 2-1 start (OK, this is getting weird now).
Their rate of explosiveness launched from an average of 19.57 yards per big play through the first three weeks to 25 yards per big play from Week 4 through Week 7— an increase of 25 percent (!!) and nearly six yards per big play.
Same head coach? Check. Same quarterback? Check. Triplets receiver corps? Check.
Standout tight end? Check. Dynamic running back room? Check.
Pause, because I'm starting to feel like the SNKRS app with all of these checks.
So what's missing here? Oh yes, the offensive line. Well, check, when they're all healthy, or at least mostly, and that's the crux of what I feel will begin to resolve not only the issue in the red zone, but should also yield a higher success rate on explosive play attempts (don't expect seven-step drops with three backups on the field, no matter how solid they've been (and they have been solid, mostly)).
Things just ain't the same for passers — who don't have a healthy offensive line.
Nuthin' But an OL Thing
I've given you the bad news, the good news and now it's time for the great news.
The Cowboys are absolutely loaded on offense, and all they need is a healthy offensive line, but I know what you're thinking: when will that be? Tyler Smith missed the first two games and his return in Week 3 against the Arizona Cardinals was met with the absence of Tyron Smith, Tyler Biadasz and Zack Martin — a combined 17 Pro Bowls, 12 All-Pro nods and two future gold jackets — due to injury.
To be fair, Tyron Smith is the only one on the entire line who suffers from the injury bug on a regular basis annually, so the prognosis is at least mostly promising when factoring in the durability of the others.
Terence Steele suffered a torn ACL, but that's not the injury bug. That's a freak football accident that either happens, or doesn't, and there's not much to prevent it. He was available for 45 games in his first three seasons before that incident, and Tyler Biadasz has never missed more than four games in his NFL career (and that was as a rookie in 2020).
Tyler Smith saved the entire day for the Cowboys last season as a rookie, and let's not even pretend Martin is injury-prone.
McCarthy would later confess he would've liked to prepare Chuma Edoga, T.J. Bass (undrafted rookie) and Brock Hoffman (undrafted second-year lineman) better to face the Arizona defensive front, but because he didn't, he'd also admit that led to apprehension, or rather an "overreaction", on his part in choosing to stuff the vertical part of the playbook back into his pocket.
Something to think about.
I respect McCarthy's willingness to look in the mirror, honestly, because he's not giving excuses, but rather reasons that come accompanied with self-awareness and accountability. Honestly, those aren't excuses any more than saying the reason mud is messy is because the dirt outside got rained on.
Also, didn't CeeDee Lamb torch the No. 3-ranked defense in the NFL in Week 2 for 143 yards on seven catches? And rightfully received a mountain of praise for doing so, along with Prescott for making all of the throws and for McCarthy for scheming up a masterpiece?
Again, something to think about.
You can have all the ingredients in the world, but if you can't cook, they'll never taste as good as they truly could. That said, I've seen signs of things that allow me to grant grace until it's no longer warranted, and it's especially true that, only three weeks into a *new* system, the Cowboys might have been preheating the oven.
Once the offensive line is back in order, the red zone woes will handle itself for a team that led the NFL in red zone offense last season. I feel good about the Cowboys' chances of at least being mostly whole fairly soon and, dare I say, before they take the trip to Santa Clara to take on the San Francisco 49ers?
Considering their first of two matchups in California will be a very real litmus test, they'd better hope so.
We shall see.
Lastly, as it relates to the red zone woes we're all waiting to meet a swift and brutal death, the film in 2023 shows the issue isn't actually play-calling, per se, but rather execution in situations wherein there's a chance to score.
I personally logged at least five occurrences alone over the first three weeks wherein the play that was called should've resulted in a touchdown but didn't, be it due to lack of vision by the ball-carrier, a sailed pass or two separate non-called defensive pass interferences in the end zone (hi Arizona).
Keep Their Heads Ringing
My biggest ask of McCarthy is to utilize the ability of Hunter Luepke more on short yardage and with goal-to-go. His speed and versatility was put on full display yet again in Week 3, but he's also got the physical build and power to muscle the football into the end zone when met with contact and the vision to know when to put his foot in the ground on an edge run and instead turn directly upfield into the open lane when/if that's what develops first.
Hendershot didn't in Week 2, but Luepke would've. And that's not a knock to the tight end in that situation, but it's … a tight end … in that situation. Simply put, let the fullback eat.
Oh, and stop completely avoiding Middle-Earth like a nervous Gandalf.
Based upon the actual science I laid plain throughout this column, I feel like everyone on offense could and should have a very full plate — soon enough — and then the Cowboys offense, along with a usually dominant defense, can really go full "Dre and Snoop" and start finally preparing for ... the next episode:
A playoff run.