The expectations of an NFL play caller and offensive coordinator are two-fold in the passing game.
First, their job is to win the chess match against defenses enough times to where the quarterback does not have to work through their progressions on a consistent basis. Calling plays based on the defense's expected reaction so that the passer can throw at the end of his dropback is paramount. Second, it’s to manufacture enough easy downfield throws per game where the play design allows for an explosive gain regardless of who is playing quarterback.
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In the Dallas Cowboys’ wild-card loss to the San Francisco 49ers, offensive coordinator Kellen Moore failed on both counts. That left quarterback Dak Prescott on an island throughout the game — and often throughout the season too.
This isn’t to sweep under the rug head coach Mike McCarthy’s baffling in-game decision-making or the team's inability to run a play without first committing a pre-snap penalty. Dallas’ decision to leave its punt unit on the field on a first down against the 49ers’ actual defense is laughable, and it led to one of those pre-snap penalties. Over the course of the season, the Cowboys’ offense tied for the NFL lead in snaps on first-and-11 or more, and they had three such plays this weekend. Such miscues — 14 in total — constantly put them behind the eight-ball in the playoff loss.
Penalties aside, the Moore-Prescott connection needs some thorough examination. When everything is clicking, the duo can look like world-beaters. That’s why the Cowboys finished third in overall offensive success rate, but that often falls on Prescott being able to go through his progressions and complete a pass late in the down rather than Moore creating offense through the lens of the play caller’s expectations laid out earlier.
Reading it Out
Of the 26 quarterbacks who threw 50 passes this season with a time to throw above three seconds from the pocket, Prescott ranked 24th in average depth of target while placing eighth in passing grade on such plays. The Cowboys slotted in at 19th in expected points added per play in these situations. This can be used as a proxy for Prescott’s ability to get through progressions and find the right receiver but the offense still not moving much.
Early in the 49ers game, Prescott was forced down to his fourth read — a swing pass to Ezekiel Elliott that the running back tried to catch with one hand before it fell to the turf.
It’s really good quarterback play to read through the corner route to Cedrick Wilson, the first in-route to Amari Cooper, the second in-route to CeeDee Lamb and then to the running back on the swing pass. These plays tend to be a theme in this offense.