Editor’s note: This story is part of The Dallas Morning News’ 2023 Cowboys preview. More stories can be found here.
The biggest change when it comes to the Cowboys offense is the play-caller. Mike McCarthy is in and Kellen Moore is out. McCarthy is an excellent play-caller, regardless of how Packers fans felt about him toward the end of his tenure as the head coach. McCarthy will implement more facets of the West Coast offense into what the Cowboys do. Quicker steps, quicker play calls, faster players, a new blocking scheme and more touches for Tony Pollard. Will it add up to an offense better than last season, when the Cowboys finished third in total offense? Here’s why Moore is gone: The last two seasons, the Cowboys were eliminated from the postseason by the 49ers. Dallas averaged 14.5 points in those losses. Welcome back, Mike.
Five things to watch with the Cowboys offense in 2023:
Speed is a strength, and it all connects
The Cowboys want to call plays quicker to give quarterback Dak Prescott more time to make an audible if necessary and use the speed of several players. When the Cowboys traded for receiver Brandin Cooks, they were adding a man who ran a 4.33-second 40-yard dash at the 2014 scouting combine and someone who says he’s still fast. Cooks’ ability to stretch a defense with downfield routes is something the Cowboys can use more of. Running back Tony Pollard will get more than the career-high 193 rushing attempts he got in 2022. Pollard will use his own speed out of the backfield on wheel routes and short passes. Receiver KaVontae Turpin and running back Deuce Vaughn are fast players the Cowboys will line up in the backfield together to create mismatches. Turpin’s quickness in running routes from the slot or finding open spots in zone coverages is where yards after catch come into play. Vaughn’s quickness and ability (because he’s 5-5) to lower his body when running through creases of the offensive line make it harder for linemen to tackle him. When he gets in the open field, he’s hard to catch.
Offensive line protections
New offensive line coach Mike Solari arrived at The Star with tremendous respect. The biggest change with Solari is the offensive line protection. The Cowboys are moving away from pocket protection where a lineman blocks a defender one-on-one to slide protection. That means an offensive lineman selects a gap to take care of rather than being assigned an individual to block. Communication is paramount with quicker play calls. With the calls coming in faster, linemen will know assignments more quickly. There will be last-minute decisions as with everything before the ball is snapped. Having right guard Zack Martin and left guard Tyler Smith helping center Tyler Biadasz increases the expectation that the run game will benefit and Prescott won’t have as much pressure on him.
What type of play-caller is Mike McCarthy?
This is hard to judge, considering McCarthy had different personnel when he was a play-caller in Green Bay, San Francisco and New Orleans. McCarthy said in the offseason he wants to run the ball more, which caused all sorts of distortion among Cowboys fans. McCarthy meant he wants ball control, especially if the game is favoring the Cowboys. However, McCarthy’s offenses have finished in the top 10 in rushing attempts just once during his career. In 2000, the Saints finished seventh in rushing attempts when Ricky Williams was the running back. In 2001, the Saints finished in the top 10 in passing attempts, and Williams, who had 313 rushing attempts, was targeted 88 times. With Aaron Rodgers as McCarthy’s quarterback in Green Bay, the Packers finished in the top 10 in passing attempts six times in McCarthy’s 13 seasons. So expect quicker, shorter throws, which could be equated to 5-yard runs, and more attempts at stretching the defense. McCarthy will call plays faster than Kellen Moore did, and that’s based on the principles of the West Coast offense that faster is better.
Improving footwork to decrease interceptions
Dak Prescott threw a career-high 15 interceptions last season. Not all the interceptions were his fault. Some were the result of balls bouncing off receivers, others were because Prescott was pressured into making an errant throw and other times the cornerback or safety just made a better play on the ball. The Cowboys want to help Prescott’s ball security, so they’re making the quarterback’s footwork more aligned with the receivers. If Prescott is taking a three-step drop, the receivers know they must reach a spot during their route to become an available target. Route running is more vital because quicker throws mean defenders will be closer to the receivers. Michael Gallup and Jalen Tolbert worked on making contested catches over the middle in training camp practices. That will be something to watch for this season. Prescott will be taking three- or five-step drops and getting rid of the ball, so the receivers need to be ready.
How many carries for Tony Pollard?
Outside of Mike McCarthy saying he wants to run the ball more and the numerous elements of the West Coast offense being introduced, starting running back Tony Pollard will get more carries. The question is, how many? As the backup, Pollard had 424 carries the last three seasons. Compare that to other starting running backs such as Derrick Henry (946), Josh Jacobs (830) and Nick Chubb (720), and there’s plenty of miles on Pollard, who’s coming off surgery for a high-ankle sprain. When McCarthy said Pollard is “back” during training camp, it was further confirmation of a heavier workload for Pollard. Will that mean 225 carries? Saquon Barkley had 295 last season for the New York Giants. That’s a comparable statistic for the Cowboys. If Pollard gets 275-290 carries, is that sufficient for the offense to succeed? It would seem Pollard is quite capable of this, though he’s never had such a heavy workload in college or the NFL. The Cowboys have faith he can handle not only the increased workload but also the pass protection that comes along with more time in the backfield.