When the offense looks like it currently does, you shake your head a bit. Remember, this is a rookie quarterback and a rookie running back. This is supposed to come with some considerable growing pains and speed bumps.
They may still arrive around the next turn, but for now, if you had to evaluate the offense based on three games, you would point out that this rookie quarterback has not thrown an interception while leading the NFL in third-down efficiency. They are moving the chains better than any offense in football and still not turning the ball over or taking sacks. That is a remarkable trick.
Through three weeks, the Cowboys' offense is in the top half of the league in every single category and in the top five in many of them. They are staying ahead of the chains and keeping themselves in proper down-and-distance situations.
I am constantly getting questions like, "Is Dak Prescott's performance sustainable?" The answer is that surely he is going to have some bad weeks -- every quarterback does. But have the Cowboys' offensive minds altered their approach to the attack because, instead of having a star, veteran quarterback who does certain things well and other things that must be avoided (for his health), they have a rookie quarterback who can put you in so many personnel binds because of his combination of passing, running and frankly, a sturdiness that allows for a few more risks?
Basically, Dak Prescott gives you math issues as a defense. And if he can make you pay with his arm, then the legs take care of themselves.
Let's look at a few examples of what I am suggesting:
The Cowboys are running two personnel groupings and formations more and more each week. It is Shotgun01 (four wide receivers, one tight end, zero running backs) and S11e, which is what I call the "Shotgun 11 empty" personnel when they put the running back out as a receiver.
I distinguish the difference because I believe the defenses will treat Ezekiel Elliott and Brice Butler differently, and if they don't, then I will motion Zeke back in and we will run the ball like that until they change their defensive deployment. Basically, like so many great coaching innovations in today's game, the defense can never be "right." An offensive mind wants to make you choose, and then, regardless of your choice, they want to make you wish you went the other way.
The Cowboys used S11e four times. They only passed once. The other three times, Dak encountered a look that made him just use his feet to move the chains.
The Bears look like they are in Cover 1 with a free man below to double Witten and spy the quarterback a bit. Dak uses his feet to move the chains and then hits the ground quickly.
This one is far more of an improv move, but he won't force a throw. Then he uses his athleticism to get around the corner for another big gain. This was 17 yards out of nothing. Textbook example of "defying the Xs and Os."
This is even better. If you drop into coverage, he will use his feet to extend the drive. If you stay up by the line, he will pass over you. This is repeatable and exciting.
Here is the fourth and final time you saw S11e, and he did make a throw. The touchdown to Dez Bryant on a deep slant.
DAK PRESCOTT THROW CHART - WEEK 3
Why aren't there interceptions? Because the balls primarily are going to safe spots on the field, where danger doesn't live. Almost every throw is outside the numbers or shallow crosses. This, frankly, is modern football. Eliminate the danger, add another element with the feet, and off we go.
The above box is what offensive perfection looks like. Every stat up there is exactly where you want to see things -- an average of 3.7 yards to go on third downs is comical. I have kept these numbers for years and don't ever recall seeing anything that low. A 6.6 average to go on second down also is remarkably low. They hadn't been down there since the 2015 opener. This team is rolling with a ground game and aerial attack that are teaming up to hum along through three weeks with impressive ease. This looks like the Cowboys when Tony Romo is really in a groove, to be honest.
This is what we were looking at earlier with the S11e grouping that somehow -- despite an empty backfield -- went to the run on three of four snaps because Dak Prescott decided to keep the ball and do it with his feet.
That, of course, skews the numbers a bit between run and pass because that is a pass call that goes down as a run number and makes the running game look even more dominant. Again, this is modern football, but if you are like me and only track the Cowboys' offense on a regular basis, you realize that the Cowboys have not really been participating in the modern, dual-threat quarterback math issues that defenses face on a regular basis. Again, I am not suggesting this way is superior to what Drew Brees and Tom Brady do, but man does it make playing defense more of a headache.
Otherwise, it is clear that "12" personnel started running the ball better -- 17 carries for 90 yards (5.3 average) is much better than what we were seeing.
Now, let's have some fun. I want to invite you to listen to a few minutes of Jason Witten talking football on our radio show about the plays I will show you below:
While you are listening to Jason, I will show you the plays here:
The first one is from the second drive -- the Cowboys faced a third-and-1.
As you can see, the motion comes over and the run route with Beasley and Witten allows a simple pitch-and-catch and a nice, easy third-down conversion.
You know that corner sees the same motion to Witten's side and he's sure what is coming. So he sneaks under Witten to get to Beasley in the flat and the Cowboys are ready for that adjustment with one of their own:
That is just beautiful and Beasley catches the first "go" route of his career.
Like Witten says, this chess game is what makes you love football.
OFFENSIVE LINE HEALTH
Here is where the rubber meets the road on where this season might go. The Cowboys played Monday night without Tyron Smith and now will play much of the season without La'el Collins (it appears). For whatever reason, I spent the summer assuming this would be the year the O-line is hit with injuries because they have gone several years without being hit, like many other teams having had to use an eighth or ninth offensive lineman for weeks at a time.
In 2013, they used the same five guys up front for the entire year. In 2014, they used Jermey Parnell for five weeks, but otherwise had 100-percent health again. Then in 2015, they had full health again aside from Ron Leary's groin strain that opened the door for Collins.
In other words, they haven't had a significant injury on the offensive line in several years. It is one thing to have high-quality players -- it's another for them to be so durable. Travis Frederick has never missed a snap. Zack Martin has duplicated that since getting drafted, too. Smith just missed his first game since 2012.
Not trading Ron Leary was something I campaigned for since July because I was sure he was going to play a role this year. It was just a matter of time. Now, they need him. Let's hope they don't need anyone else off the bench to become a regular.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
I have been very encouraged with the work of Scott Linehan and Dak Prescott to not only design something that can be successful, but maybe more importantly, something that can be repeatable.
There is a fair amount of creativity and wrinkles we have not seen until this point. They are employing a number of either/or scenarios that put the quarterback in a comfortable spot in decision-making while allowing for advantageous places to go with the ball. All of this behind an offensive line that doesn't allow pass pressure and can get a zone-running game going with Zeke behind it.
Again, it all seems legitimate.
I don't know where this goes when Tony Romo is healthy. I assume it might go back to the way they used to do things with No. 9 under center. But, I am comfortable that this team can consider continuing down this path and following this blueprint until they must make a decision.