Skip to main content

Science Lab

Presented by

Science Lab: Evolving Dak, McCarthy on the attack


FRISCO, TX — Don't look now, OK, I knew you'd look when I said that, but the Dallas Cowboys' offense is officially one of the most explosive in the entire NFL. The reasons for the evolution were hinted at by recent history, as I pointed out several weeks prior to it happening, but also rooted in several tweaks by Mike McCarthy and Dak Prescott that have gone unnoticed by most.

That is until now, because it's time to look into the Darwinism of it all.

Prescott and Lamb are both operating at an MVP level through Week 10, one hand washing the other, continually, with the former having now thrown for 12 passing TDs to only two interceptions in past four games for a robust 1,354 yards and a passer 125.2 rating; and he's also rushed for two touchdowns extended several drives with his mobility.

"I think, this past month, we're hitting on all cylinders." — Mike McCarthy

In the previous five games (one additional game) combined for Prescott? Well, he threw for 293 fewer yards (1,061), eight fewer touchdowns (4) and had twice as many interceptions (4), owning a passer rating of 70.31.

So what the hell has gotten into Prescott and the Cowboys' offense lately?

The short answer to that question is: heaven.

Now let's take a stroll into the longer, more in-depth answer(s).

Tough "Break"

The demoralizing loss to the 49ers broke the Cowboys.

The good news is that, apparently, it was the right kind of fracture. Fact is, the offense was still trying to find its path toward explosiveness after having seen turnover at offensive coordinator, play-caller, running backs coach, offensive line coach and quarterbacks coach, and also the lead running back role; and McCarthy also admittedly needed to knock off some rust at turning the dials.

With so much change this offseason, I warned to give the unit a chance to begin firing on all cylinders, especially considering Prescott and other key offensive players hadn't played in the preseason (I'm good with that, by the way) and then the offensive line suffered multiple injuries that threw their five-man combinations into a merry-go-round of personnel placements.

Still, there was growth over the first four weeks, but it wasn't the right type of growth, and Dallas found that out the hard way. It was like a bone that wasn't healing correctly and needed to be medically fractured again to ensure it grew in the right direction. So yes, you hated it in the moment but, ultimately, Kyle Shanahan did the Cowboys a favor.

He medically fractured the bone and now it's growing, and quickly, how it should've in the first place.


Poetry in … Motion

Shanahan reminded McCarthy, for starters, just how lethal pre-snap motion can be. As it stands, the Cowboys have the second-highest rate of offensive explosiveness in Week 7 through Week 10, on plays that exceed 15 yards, second only to, you guessed it, Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers.

Hmmm ...

I say Shanahan reminded McCarthy because McCarthy already had an idea, but hadn't fully leaned into the idea to that point. But considering the quality of weapons in Dallas isn't much different from that in San Francisco, there should've been no reason for the latter to flat-out punish what is arguably the best defense in the NFL, then and now.

Pre-snap motion can be devastatingly unsettling to even the best of defenses, and McCarthy felt that burn firsthand at Levi's Stadium and, ever since, he's made sure the Cowboys are one of the teams in the league that utilize it the most.

*source material: Next Gen Stats

Pre-snap motion (Week 1 through Week 4):

  • @ Giants: 35 (63.3%)
  • vs. Jets: 31 (41%)
  • @ Cardinals: 30 (40%)
  • vs. Patriots: 37 (53.6%)

Outcome of each contest:

  • @ Giants: 40-0, Win
  • vs. Jets: 30-10, Win
  • @ Cardinals: 28-16, Loss
  • vs. Patriots: 38-3, Win

The first thing that jumps out here is that McCarthy started the year ready to give the league a bout of motion sickness, giving the Giants all they could handle.

But when the offense struggled to get going, largely due to lack of preseason reps, the aforementioned changes and the weather, it feels like the Cowboys' play-caller scaled back for Week 2, and winning that game decisively didn't do much to change his mind regarding the use of pre-snap motion.

The offense was still sputtering, but it wasn't much different from the regular season opener, and then came the upset at the hand of the Cardinals in Week 3, the first real hint that (along with it being the worst defensive outing at the time) Prescott and the offense needed to make some schematic changes.

And, wouldn't you know it, for only the second time in the first four games, the Cowboys deployed pre-snap motion on more than half of their reps. The red-zone woes were still present, due to execution miscues, and that's why they were still not stacking touchdowns, but at least they were back on the right track, or so you would've believed.

… but …

Pre-snap motion (Week 5):

  • @ 49ers: 19 (39%)

Outcome of Week 5:

  • @ 49ers: 42-10, Loss

I believe McCarthy saw, again, the offense sputter despite using pre-snap motion more than half of the time and turned it down again here, and to a season-low, helping to lead to a season-worst showing by the offense; and the defensive play didn't help in delivering their hands-down worst showing of the season, blowing the Cardinals' film out of the water.

This brings me to the current state of affairs in Dallas, and it's a state that's so promising it might beat Puerto Rico to being the 51st in the Union.

Pre-snap motion (Week 6 through Week 10):

  • @ Chargers: 38 (62%) - 20-17, W
  • vs. Rams: 35 (56%) - 43-20, W
  • @ Eagles: 38 (54%) - 28-23, L
  • vs. Giants: 47 (61%) - 49-17, W

Outcome of each post-Week 5 contest:

  • @ Chargers: 38 (62%) - 20-17, W
  • vs. Rams: 35 (56%) - 43-20, W
  • @ Eagles: 38 (54%) - 28-23, L
  • vs. Giants: 47 (61%) - 49-17, W

Not unlike the first four games prior to the 49ers matchup, the Cowboys have gone 3-1 in this stretch following their trip to Levi's Stadium as well, and very nearly 4-0, if not for a knee, a toe, a false start and (yes, I'll say it) some downright nauseatingly ill-timed no-calls and/or unjustified penalties (but that's a story for another time).

That said, has the vast uptick in pre-snap motion made that much of a change in the outcome of the games? Well, yes, if you account for now simply the outcome but how they get there.

Offensive points per game (PATs/FGs excluded):

  • @ Giants: 12
  • vs. Jets: 12
  • @ Cardinals: 6
  • vs. Patriots: 6
  • @ 49ers: 6

*Average: 8.4 offensive points per game

Now let's turn this up, once Prescott reignites his mobility against the Chargers to set the stage for the weeks to follow that contest, along with a frustrated Lamb growing horns to start looking like a GOAT (it really does all tie together).

  • @ Chargers: 12
  • vs. Rams: 24
  • @ Eagles: 18
  • vs. Giants: 42

*Average: 24 offensive points per game

They also had opportunities, as mentioned above, to add one to two more touchdowns to the board in Philadelphia to put them at 7-2 on the season and push the average offensive output that much higher over the past four weeks; but the overarching point here is rather clear.

While pre-snap motion, alongside execution, has the Cowboys in rare air right now, and there's no reason for them to turn back now.

Floor it, Mike.

Air Apparent

The team as a whole had a decision to make after they were dragged out back and beaten to within an inch of their football lives by the 49ers, one that would determine the course of their season thereafter.

They could either get down on themselves, pout, throw a tantrum and spiral into a wasted season, or they could look at what Shanahan did and realize that same potential exists in Dallas, and with an experience play-caller, a revamped analytics department and one of the best QB-WR duos in all of professional football.

What's more is how feverishly they've leaned into their passing attack, partly due to the struggles in the run game but, more so, due to the belief in Prescott, Lamb and the other skill players who can destroy a defensive secondary.

They are passing nearly 10 percent more often than expected (+9.9%) in any given situation, and that's good enough for ... wait for it ... FIRST in the NFL in that category. Because of that, Dak Prescott leads the NFL in pass yards (1,082), TD (11) and EPA (+43.1) over that time frame.

"I'm one of The Ones. I'm [a] top receiver in this game. There's no question about it. If there is, I'll see you again next week." — CeeDee Lamb

Outside of you tapping on that very obvious blue hyperlink to the left of this sentence to find out exactly just how ridiculous Prescott and Lamb have been — even prior to Lamb going out and setting an NFL record a few days ago and Brandin Cooks gluing 170+ yards to Brian Daboll’s forehead — here are additionally tasty morsels for both the gray and white matter inside of that calcium helmet atop your neck.

Quarterback EPA (Expected Points Above Average)

  • Brock Purdy - 67.2
  • Tua Tagovailoa - 57.9
  • Dak Prescott - 48.7
  • Patrick Mahomes - 43.7
  • Justin Herbert - 41.5

I'll readily tell you one huge driver of Prescott's ascension this season, one that has to put him in the MVP conversation at the moment, is his marked improvement against man coverage. Don't let the national media feed you an inaccurate narrative when it comes to Prescott's ability to dissect zone coverage. He's had that scalpel in his bag for a very long time. Man coverage, however, has often been his Boogeyman, and it's what the 49ers used to ruin his day.

No one has since, though.

Again, thank you, San Francisco.

Pass splits vs. coverage looks (post-SF):

  • Zone: 61/87, 784 yards, 6 pTDs, 1 INT, 116.26 rating
  • Man: 40/53, 570 yards, 6 pTDs, 1 INT, 139.66 rating

This is the definition of being forced to pick your poison. If you present Prescott with a zone look, the odds are in his favor. If you switch to a man look, the odds are, now, also in his favor, and it's due in part to his newfound comfort and command of the Texas Coast offense, as well as his willingness to threaten with his legs, and also the simple fact that his playmakers are …

… gasp …

Making plays.

"When the ball comes your way, just go out there and make plays." — Brandin Cooks

CeeDee Lamb has accumulated 975 receiving yards through nine games this season, and 351 of those are yards after the catch (36%). He has 221 more yards than expected (per route plus situation) and his catch rate is an inhumanly good 79.1 percent (vs. expected of 63.9%).

If the ball is thrown anywhere on the planet, Lamb might be the one to catch it.

The breakout season of Jake Ferguson simply makes Prescott and the offense that much more deadly, which was true before Cooks walked into the kitchen in Week 10 and lit a grease fire that the Giants kept trying to throw buckets of water on.

The rushing attack is still working through its process, but doesn't that make what Prescott, Lamb and McCarthy are doing that much more special? They're no longer trying to establish the run to set up the pass — something many alleged McCarthy would attempt to do in the post-Kellen Moore era — but they're instead using the pass to … set up the run … in DALLAS?

And so it goes, that there has been a very clear and evident offensive evolution this season. All of the dinosaurs are dead thanks to the extinction level event on Oct. 8, 2023.

Approximately 37 days later, it's starting to look like Blade Runner around here.

Related Content