In a one-on-one with Cowboys legend Emmitt Smith, Jori Epstein and the Hall of Famer discuss how Kellen Moore is unlocking Dak Prescott’s potential and his thoughts on Ezekiel Elliott’s new contract.
FRISCO, Texas — The Dallas Cowboys saw an offensive weapon hit 100 receiving yards just four times last season. No receiver topped the mark in Dallas’ first five games of 2018.
On Sunday, the Cowboys opened 2019 to a faster start. Their 35-17 win over the Giants not only featured a 100-yard receiving threat — it featured two.
“You got Amari Cooper on the other side, you better watch out for him as well,” Cowboys receiver Michael Gallup said from his locker Monday evening. “But I’d definitely say don’t sleep on me no more either.”
Gallup caught all seven targets from Dak Prescott for 158 yards. Cooper caught six more passes for 106 yards and a touchdown. In all, Prescott connected with seven different targets on throws and sent four receivers to the end zone.
It was a passing game far beyond what the Cowboys’ run-first offense has shown in recent years.
Cowboys Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith was impressed with what first-year coordinator Kellen Moore unleashed.
“[Moore] is opening it up and allowing Dak Prescott to become a better quarterback by giving him a lot more tools to work with, giving him a chance to make those big plays.” “That in itself has opened up the Cowboys offense to where now, you got guys … who can blow the top off the defense and get beyond that.
“The ball can actually go 30-40 yards down the field, which makes a big, big difference in terms of how we utilize Ezekiel Elliott.”
Smith, who rushed for an NFL-record 18,355 yards in his 13 NFL seasons, would know. He won three Super Bowls with the Cowboys, leading the league in rushing yards per game each year. But Smith’s monster performances — think 107.1, 106.1 and 110.8 rushing yards per game in those years — were not the bulk of the Cowboys’ offense in 1992, 1993 and 1995, respectively. Instead, with Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman at the helm, the passing game accounted for 61 to 63 percent of offensive yards in each campaign. Defenses needed to respect what Aikman could do with receiving weapons like Michael Irvin, Alvin Harper and Jay Novacek.
Enter a successful run plan for Smith.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones compared Dallas’ opening game offense to the 90s squad.
“Any time you put in place the one-two punch, I know if they tried to put more up in the line to stop Emmitt back in those days, then Aikman would pick them apart going down the field. One or the other,” Jones said Sunday night from AT&T Stadium. “I don’t know if I have seen us since those days being able to take whatever the defense gives us and find an answer. I feel that. I saw us do that out there against the Giants today.”
Smith sees validity in the comparison, after an opener in which the passing game (494 yards) carried the offense with assists from the run game (89 yards). But a balanced attack isn’t sufficient for a deep playoff run, he cautioned. Mistakes, injuries and the season grind can still derail a talented team.
“Being consistent throughout the season is what can actually get you back to the Super Bowl,” said Smith, who will be at the Super Bowl with Courtyard by Marriott’s Super Bowl Sleepover Contest. “I think the Cowboys have shown they can be balanced. [Sunday] was a great day. But we have to build upon those things.”
Elliott’s reintegration will help. After touching the ball on more than 35 of snaps in 2018, Elliott touched the ball on 20 percent Sunday. The Cowboys still scored five touchdowns. Their goal: Continue to ramp up Elliott’s involvement as he gets into rhythm following a 40-day contract holdout. But let defenses know this offense is not one dimensional. Add in the pre-snap motion in Moore’s scheme that aims to confuse defenders and “Kellen did a very good job of disguising what was happening,” Smith said. “Doing all these different things for eye dressings and for eye distractions.” Smith, who is leading a Combine Masterclass for fans with Marriott Bonvoy through the season, said he expects in the coming months that Moore will key up more tricks from his Boise State days that the NFL hasn’t yet seen.
Cowboys players do, too.
“It’s Week 1,” Cowboys safety Jeff Heath said Monday. “We’re going to look back at this game in 10 weeks and be like, ‘Man, I don’t even recognize this team.’
“We’re only going to get better.”