By trade, McGovern is an offensive lineman and perhaps one that should be lining up more given Connor Williams’ league-leading 13 penalties at left guard. But offensive coordinator Kellen Moore has turned McGovern into a tight end, a fullback and, yes, even a tailback.
On the game’s second play, McGovern lined up out wide near receiver CeeDee Lamb with tight ends Jeremy Sprinkle and Sean McKeon closer to the offensive line. Quarterback Dak Prescott fired a quick screen pass to Lamb with McGovern serving as a lead blocker by taking care of Atlanta cornerback Fabian Moreau.
Lamb had a 37-yard reception on his way to a 94-yard day including two touchdowns.
When 315-pound Cowboys OL Connor McGovern is lined up at wide receiver, it is best to play off-coverage. Respect the speed. WR CeeDee Lamb caught a quick-hitter for 37-yard gain vs. Falcons. pic.twitter.com/v7PuW4F58l— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) November 15, 2021
“Oh, it’s easy running screen plays behind him,” Lamb said of McGovern. “You got him on the corner, obviously the corner wouldn’t like to see that.”
Moore’s genius has been on full display this season as the Cowboys lead the NFL in yards per game (433.9) and points per game (31.6). According to Elias, the last time the Cowboys led the league in scoring and total offense this late in the season was in Weeks 10-12 of the 1995 season.
That’s also the last time the Cowboys won a Super Bowl.
After interviewing to become the Philadelphia Eagles head coach last offseason, Moore is viewed as one of the top candidates when vacancies open up after this season. The same could be said for the opposing offensive coordinator this week, Eric Bieniemy, whose Kansas City Chiefs host the Cowboys on Sunday (4:25 p.m. ET, Fox).
With the success of young, offensive-minded coaches like Sean McVay (50-24 career record) of the Los Angeles Rams, Matt LaFleur (34-8) with the Green Bay Packers and Kliff Kingsbury (8-2 this season) of the Arizona Cardinals, the 33-year-old Moore could be next in line.
Whether Moore jumps at an opportunity next year or not is a story for another day, but his creativity stands out as the Cowboys rack up yards and points.
He grew up the son of a high school coach, collecting playbooks from all over, scouring the internet for different schemes, formations and plays.
In the Week 2 win against the Los Angeles Chargers, Moore lined up three offensive linemen in front of Prescott. Tackles Tyron Smith and Terence Steele lined up even wider to the left than McGovern did against the Falcons for two plays.
On Halloween against the Minnesota Vikings, Moore had McGovern and tackle La’el Collins line up at fullback in front of running back Ezekiel Elliott. The Cowboys call the seven offensive linemen look their “Hulk” package.
“Anytime you get seven offensive linemen out on the field it’s got to put the pressure on the defense and they better be ready,” right guard Zack Martin said.
Also against the Vikings, wide receiver Cedrick Wilson threw a pass to Lamb that actually went against the design of the play when Minnesota’s defense made Wilson change direction. No matter, the former high school quarterback found Lamb for 35 yards.
Last week, Wilson lined up as a Wildcat quarterback, and Elliott “threw” a pass, the first of his career, for an 11-yard gain.
“Our deceptive menu is something I think Kellen and really our young coaches do a really good job scouring each week,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “They have a pretty good playbook, pretty good menu.”
The process starts with offseason reviews not just of the Cowboys’ offensive plan, but looking at other teams across the league, college football at all levels and maybe even some old high school footage. Remember, in Moore’s college days, Boise State was known for its expanded and colorful plays, so it might be in his DNA.
In season, every Monday after reviewing the film of the previous game and before the heavy game planning begins for the next opponent, Moore and offensive assistants Kyle Valero and Chase Haslett “take a trip around the league.”
“See all the trends that are going on, sometimes dabble in the college world,” Moore said. “We’re always looking for different inspirations. Throw them in folders, throw them in cutup folders. If they apply six weeks down the road, may not apply this year, may apply next year. Who really knows, but we’re always trying to gather information.”
From the idea to game implementation can take a few weeks because Moore wants to see the play -- or plays -- in practice a few times and at full speed on a Thursday practice before he is comfortable calling it live.
“He does a good job of not overwhelming, not putting too much in it, knowing the right time to get it in,” Prescott said.
Then there’s the timing in the game, which has impressed McCarthy.
The “Hulk” package allowed the Cowboys to settle down backup quarterback Cooper Rush, who was making his first start in place of an injured Prescott. The Chargers were hurried defensively when they saw Smith and Steele wide and running back Tony Pollard picked up 13 yards, although Moore admits he got a little greedy when he called on the formation two plays later and the play lost 4 yards.
Against the Denver Broncos, McGovern did not play a snap. On the second play against the Falcons, Moore had him lined up out wide as Lamb’s lead blocker.
“Any of those types of plays, if you don’t catch the right defense, it could be not a very good play for you,” McCarthy said.
Sometimes Moore will call plays for future opponents to worry about. Wilson’s Wildcat look came with the Cowboys leading 36-3.
“There’s only so much time in a week with practice and preparation aspects with regard to that so the more we can put on film, the more it benefits us because the defense has to pick and choose what they’re going to focus on each week,” Moore said. “But I think the key is keeping it concise, keeping it tight, keeping the identity of who we are. We’re not going to turn into Gadget City.”
The fundamentals of the Cowboys’ offensive success still revolve around a successful running game, highlighted by a punishing offensive line. They want to run the ball and use play-action off that, but they know they have mismatches at times with their receivers Amari Cooper, Lamb and Michael Gallup.
“He’s not afraid to step outside the box, to do something unorthodox,” Elliott said of Moore. “That’s tough on defenses because you’ve got to, one, be ready. You really can’t be ready for an unscouted look and they just know he’s going to always keep them on their toes. I think he’s pretty unpredictable.”
As unpredictable as putting McGovern at tailback for a goal-line play against Atlanta, which is where he started before Elliott’s 1-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.
Moore is just messing with people by having McGovern at tailback, right?
“Yes,” Lamb said. “That’s just Kellen being Kellen.”
Or maybe he isn’t. Maybe McGovern will get the ball soon. On the play before Elliott’s touchdown, Prescott faked a handoff to McGovern, who was at fullback.
“That’s scheme, isn’t it? We don’t talk about scheme,” McCarthy laughed. “I’ll tell you what, just watch him on the goal-line plays when he fakes the dive. It might be time.”
With Moore, anything is possible.