With yet another Patriots Super Bowl in the books, we take a moment to evaluate, as we do every year, how close the Dallas Cowboys are to the level of the two final teams. In this year particularly, it’s a little easier to grasp considering the fact that the Rams bounced the Cowboys from the Divisional round 30-22 on their way to being crowned the NFC Champions. From there, thanks to a fair bit of controversy, they clipped the New Orleans Saints in the Superdome, 26-23 in overtime. In the AFC, meanwhile, the 2-seeded Pats took down the electric Pat Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs -also in overtime- 34-31. But the comparisons and match ups go beyond mere talent evaluation and depth, though obviously that’s also important. The New England Patriots weren’t better on paper than the Los Angeles Rams, they simply out coached and schemed them.
Throughout the conference championship games and the Super Bowl itself, a proverbial chess match took place, featuring the likes of Sean Payton, Sean McVay, and Bill Belichick. Oh and Andy Reid. He was there too. At this point in the season, you cannot rely simply on what brought you to the dance. Jason Garrett, for instance, has a philosophical view that they Cowboys are going to run their 90’s dynasty-styled offense and there’s not going to be a damn thing you can do to stop them. Once all of the necessary pieces were in place, that worked fine. Until they were matched up in the divisional round with the Los Angeles Rams.
Wade Philips’s defense made adjustments after some early success for the Cowboys and suffocated the rushing champion, Ezekiel Elliott. McVay, meanwhile, took a very good Cowboys defense and flat-out humiliated it in its biggest game of the year. That’s invaluable coaching. McVay and company would again adjust the following week in New Orleans, rallying from a 13-0 deficit and then nailing a pair of long field goals to stun the home crowd, officiating assistance aside. Then, in one of the more fascinating developments in an otherwise ‘meh’ Super Bowl was how McVay changed one of his main tendencies.
The Rams like to break from the huddle very early in the play clock, allowing McVay to look over the defense and still communicate with his young quarterback Jared Goff as long as he can before the snap. In the Super Bowl, however, Belichick -an all-time great coach with an ever-evolving philosophy- would turn this strategy on its head, making his own counters to the Rams offense throughout the first three quarters of the game, forcing McVay to instead change tactics and attempt to hide his personnel within the huddle as long as possible. In the end, both defenses were impressive but a battered Todd Gurley and an absent Cooper Kupp limited the Rams stellar offense. New England, meanwhile, was able to capitalize on the presence of its great slot receiver, Julian Edelman, whose 10 catches for 141 yard performance allowed him to capture Super Bowl MVP honors.
So that’s a broad overview of what led us to this moment. The question now is just how close the Dallas Cowboys are to these two teams.
With regard to the Rams, I think, from a personnel standpoint, they aren’t too far, honestly. Los Angeles may have a lot more big names, sure, but statistically speaking the one big difference between them was turnovers forced. The Rams were 4th in the league with 30 takeaways, whereas Dallas amassed just 20. In the fumbles forced department, they were just about equal with 12 and 11 forced fumbles respectively. The key difference was in the interception category, where the Rams doubled up the Dallas secondary with 18 picks. For Dallas to close this gap, they would need to add a legitimate ball hawk like an Earl Thomas this offseason and hope that Xavier Woods can continue to develop alongside him. But while the defense doesn’t feel too far away, the offense remains another question entirely.
With Scott Linehan being fired and Quarterback Coach Kellen Moore being promoted to OC at just 30 years old, Dallas is set to bring in a fresh set of ideas and perspectives. Nobody questions Moore’s bright mind, but whether or not he can be anything like Sean McVay, the 33-year-old offensive genius who has created a new rush toward young, bright, offensive-minded coaches league-wide remains to be seen. Initial reports suggested Jason Garrett would largely reclaim playcalling duties for the first time since 2013 but we’ve since been told that will not be the case. Instead, Moore, with a little help potentially from Cowboys Tight Ends coach, Doug Nussmeier and new Quarterback coach, Jon Kitna, will handle said responsibilities. But with Garrett now in the last year of his deal and no extension appearing imminent this offseason, to what degree will he still attempt to influence the offensive playcalling?
We saw with Linehan, who demonstrated a very aggressive, pass-happy attack throughout his time in Detroit, a drastic evolution in philosophy until his playcalling so closely aligned with Garrett’s tenure as an OC and playcaller that it was all but indistinguishable. Going into the final week of the season, a game Linehan reportedly didn’t have much to do with, the Cowboys were rated 31st in the league in red zone scoring. Overall, they were 22nd in total offense 23rd in passing, and 10th in rushing. In fact, with Linehan calling the plays, Dallas never rated better than 14th in passing. A big part of that may be Garrett’s influence, but if that continues with Moore, it’s hard to see Dallas reaching the level of either of these Super Bowl teams.
The Cowboys have done a fantastic job over the past several drafts, building a talented roster full of homegrown talent as a result. But if they’re going to take that next step, they must be able and willing to make adjustments, both offensively and defensively. They also must be willing to take an honest look at their roster and upgrade some of their personnel if they can do so with a significant investment. The Rams spent huge in free agency this past year, and the Eagles have as well in the last two seasons. It’s great to largely build your roster on homegrown talent, most of which is on affordable rookie deals, but to get to that next level, certain investments must be made. If the Dallas front office can do that, and if Jason Garrett and the rest of the coaching staff can approach its late season games more as a battle of the minds rather than going in with a stubborn, unyielding mentality based on well established tendencies and archaic philosophies, perhaps they’ll eventually rise to the level of the Rams and Patriots.
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