INDIANAPOLIS -- The Dallas Cowboys' season ended six weeks ago, but how it ended remains fresh.
Dak Prescott scrambles for 17 yards as the clock is ticking down. The players scramble to get into position so the quarterback can spike the ball for a final play. The umpire is late in setting the ball. The clock runs out. The San Francisco 49ers beat Dallas 23-17 in the wild-card round.
Coach Mike McCarthy answered countless questions about the why and how of that play, but offensive coordinator Kellen Moore hadn’t. Until this week at the NFL scouting combine.
“We were in Hail Mary range. We’d been using the sideline and we felt like at that point they banged a timeout and we just kind of talked things through it,” Moore said during a 30-minute session with ESPN. “We said, ‘Hey, we have a chance to potentially go in bounds, and if we can get the ball inside the 30, for us, that changes. We can run a real play instead of a Hail Mary play.
“We felt like if we got the yards, obviously, we felt comfortable. We trained it that way. I think we had three examples of that situation playing out in the NFL. Obviously, there’s a component of getting the ball touched [by an official]. ‘Blessed,’ I believe they call it. The operation just didn’t go smoothly from that standpoint. We’ve got to either take that into consideration or potentially alert them to the kind of play we run so the operation could go a little bit smoother.”
Fair or not, that play has ended up defining the season and, in some ways, Moore.
There’s little talk about Prescott’s franchise-record 37 touchdown passes. Nobody wants to notice that the Cowboys led the league in yards (6,919) and points per game (31.2). Running back Ezekiel Elliott ran for more than 1,000 yards despite playing most of the year with a partially torn ligament. Receiver CeeDee Lamb was added to the Pro Bowl in his second year. Dalton Schultz became just the second tight end in franchise history, joining Jason Witten, to catch at least 70 passes for 800 yards. The Cowboys finished the regular season with touchdowns in their final 13 red zone drives.
“It’s abrupt for everyone. Everyone ends up in a bad mood except for one team that wins the Super Bowl,” Moore said. “We wanted to go all the way to the end. That’s everyone’s goal and aspirations, but that’s how this thing works. So you’ve got to process it. It’s not going to feel great for a while. You’ve got to work through that and get past it.”
After a series of meetings, reviews and discussions, that process is complete, and the combine serves as a start to the 2022 season.
Moore, who will be entering his fourth season as the playcaller, is not fixated on what went well for the Cowboys in 2021. He is fixated on what did not go well, especially in the second half of the season. The numbers are buoyed by three explosive offensive games against the Atlanta Falcons, Washington Commanders and Philadelphia Eagles.
“I think if it was one overarching thing, then it would be easy to fix,” Moore said. “It’s just little things. We’re going to look at it from a scheme standpoint. We’re going to look at it from a technique, fundamental, personnel standpoint and we’re playing different teams [in 2022] with different structures that maybe we played. There’s always going to be things from every game, every experience you learn from. ... We were 32nd in penalties. We’ve got hundreds of yards in penalties. We need to address that.”
McCarthy said he will be more involved in the offense in 2022. In McCarthy’s first year, he did not want to crowd Moore or micromanage. Last season, he wanted to make sure the defense was up to the changes new coordinator Dan Quinn was making.
“You have to be where you need to be,” McCarthy said. “I know that’s been my path from Year 1 to Year 2 now going into Year 3. So, yeah, definitely the things we’re doing on offense, you go back, you look at. Year 1, the goal is to keep as much of the language and as much fundamental concepts with Dak we felt we could pull forward, but more importantly have a philosophy, a structure that I’ve obviously been accustomed to over almost a 30-year period here ... But I can say this, moving forward, that’s where I’m going to be.”
Executive vice president Stephen Jones says he believes people have underestimated McCarthy’s involvement anyway. Moore said he and McCarthy communicate a ton during the week so they are prepared for situations that arise in the games.
“He’s part of the offense,” Moore said. “As a head coach, you have a lot of other obligations. ... In season, it gets busy for him, but he’s going to pop in with the offense and we’re going to talk through things. In the offseason, especially the last few weeks, these are great opportunities for us to kind of slow down. There’s not a lot of distractions. You can get back into football."
There was a possibility Moore would not return to the Cowboys in 2022. He interviewed for a number of head-coaching vacancies and was a finalist for the Miami Dolphins job.
There is some natural disappointment in not getting the job, but his fallback isn’t a bad option.
“On a personal level, I love Dallas,” Moore said. “This will be my eighth year between a player and coach here. It’s a special place. It’s probably not just an everyday job like some people have in this league. This is different. ... If the opportunity presents itself, that’s awesome, and I think things work and we’re ready to go, let’s do it. But I love Dallas.”
Moore on Prescott: “He hasn’t had a full offseason since 2019. I think it’s really exciting. Full offseason, full OTAs, operate like a normal guy.”
On Elliott: “I think Zeke’s still a big-time player.”
On Lamb: “I love him. He’s special.”
On Pollard: “I love giving him opportunities and I think you’re always looking at how we can find him more opportunities.”
Moore understands the chatter about his job, but growing up as a coach’s kid, having played at a high level and now coached for the Cowboys, he has learned to ignore it. The 2021 season is over; 2022 is a new beginning.
“You can’t ride the roller coaster,” Moore said. “If you’re riding the roller coaster, you’re going to get sick and dizzy. That’s how this thing goes.”