Was Play Calling Really The Problem With The Cowboys Offense?

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mike mccarthy

The Cowboys’ offense has already had its most significant change of the offseason. Former offensive coordinator Kellen Moore now works for the Los Angeles Chargers and Mike McCarthy will reportedly take over play-calling duties in Dallas. While no roster move is likely to impact the offensive landscape as much as this, the Cowboys still have plenty of work to do at improving the overall talent level on this side of the ball.

Whether Moore had stayed or not, Dallas’ offensive roster is not in great shape. Some major free agent decisions are looming with RB Tony Pollard and TE Dalton Schultz, plus the salary cap issues swirling around RB Ezekiel Elliott and OT Tyron Smith’s contracts. How the Cowboys handle these three players alone could have a dramatic effect on other moves throughout the team, both on offense and defense.

More to come…

Dallas’ salary cap situation and the moves taken to free up space will become clearer in the coming weeks. But for now, it suffices to say that they are going to have to make some investments in both offensive firepower and protection. Between a lack of reliable passing targets and one of the NFL’s worst-graded offensive lines for pass protection, the Cowboys have issues that aren’t going to be solved by Kellen Moore’s departure.

The Cowboys lost last year’s bet on WR Michael Gallup. They’d hoped he would bounce back from his 2021 ACL injury quickly enough to be a key part of the offense again, but we saw how that unfolded. Gallup’s impact was inconsistent at best and woefully absent in the playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Knowing the chemistry that Gallup and QB Dak Prescott have had in past years, plus the work CeeDee Lamb was doing as a legitimate number-one receiver, you have to chalk up Gallup’s struggles to physical limitations.

Another offseason and rest and recovery could be all that Gallup needs. He’ll still be just 27 when the season begins and players often look much better in the second year removed from a major knee injury. But can Dallas afford to take that same gamble again?

A WR talent problem

Even if Gallup returns to form the Cowboys still have to think about their third receiver. When this offense was top-ranked in 2019 and 2021, it boasted three consistent receivers. Gallup and Amari Cooper were around both years and the third guy was Randall Cobb in 2019 and Lamb in 2021.

That third guy for 2023 may not currently be under contract. Noah Brown had some moments last year but mostly when Cooper Rush was at quarterback, thanks to their second-string experience and chemistry. T.Y. Hilton showed some good things as a late-season addition but how much can he be counted on at age 33 to contribute over a full year? Prospects like Jalen Tolbert and Simi Fehoko have yet to even force their way onto the field, let alone a higher spot on the depth chart.

If the lack of receiving targets didn’t make life hard enough for Dak Prescott and Kellen Moore last year, the offensive line piled on with its own challenges. Outside of G Zack Martin’s typical greatness there were injury issues and shifting personnel that limited the group’s cohesiveness and stability. Tyron Smith’s absence for most of the season was a killer, forcing rookie Tyler Smith outside and weakening the line at both left positions. Losing OT Terence Steele on the other side remains an underrated issue. While Tyron returned to help at right tackle and Jason Peters jumped in to help on the left side, there were just too many moving parts.

Projecting the Cowboys 2023 O-Line

A starting five of Tyron Smith, Tyler Smith, Tyler Biadasz, Zack Martin, and Terence Steele would be more than respectable for 2023 and is very attainable. Steele is the only free agent of the bunch and will be restricted, having just three years so far in the NFL. The Cowboys should be able to keep him for something between $2.6-$4.3 million, depending on which level of RFA tender they choose to invest.

But again, Tyron Smith’s contract is an issue given his chronic injuries. They’d gladly continue to pay him if he was actually on the field, but Smith has only played in 17 games over the last three seasons. It feels like something will have to change this offseason, and that ripple effect could have Dallas looking for another starter at either left tackle or guard. Connor McGovern is a free agent this year and really hasn’t shown he’s worth a second contract, at least not for a starting role.

Clearly, the Cowboys can’t afford to be lazy this offseason. Even if they simply ran it back with the same talent from last year, several moves would be needed to retain key talents like Pollard, Schultz, and Steele. But based on the results from 2022, there are deficiencies on offense that maintaining the status quo and hoping for internal improvement just isn’t going to solve.

If Mike McCarthy is coaching for his job next season, and there’s every reason to think that he is, then you can be sure he’s badgering the front office about these issues. No matter who was going to call the plays in 2023 they need better groceries to cook with. Let’s hope that the Jones family is ready to shop this offseason.

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