FRISCO, Texas — Amari Cooper said Derwin James noticed.
The Cowboys had thrown 58 times to 18 runs in Week 1 but were now compiling a 31-rush, 27-throw game. After managing just 60 rushing yards against Tampa, Dallas was racing to 198 against the Chargers.
James, a safety who earned All-Pro honors in his lone healthy pro season, queried the Cowboys’ four-time Pro Bowl receiver.
“He was kind of confused, like, ‘Y’all are running the heck out of that thing,’ ” Cooper remembered. “I was like ‘Yeah.’ He was like, ‘Y’all did nothing but throw last week.’
“We’ve got all the weapons to be both, so I can see how that can intimidate a defense.”
The sample size is limited. But in their first two games, the Cowboys displayed an offense that can and will threaten defenses in creative and intentional ways.
Three passing touchdowns in Week 1? Quarterback Dak Prescott checked that box immediately upon returning from ankle and shoulder injuries. A pair of rushing touchdowns in Week 2? The Cowboys had established that ultimately necessary cushion by the end of the first quarter at SoFi Stadium.
Heavy investment in talented offensive personnel has set the tone for what Cooper proudly describes as a “multidimensional offense.” But credit also goes to third-year offensive coordinator Kellen Moore for building and teaching a scheme that entered Week 3 ranking top five in total yards per game, yards per carry, first downs earned and third-down conversion rate.
Monday night, the Cowboys will execute their third offensive game plan against a team that respected Moore’s offensive mind enough to interview him for its head-coaching vacancy this offseason. The Cowboys are hopeful their early-season schematic diversity keeps the Eagles on their toes.
Amari Cooper on Sunday: "Do I think I’m the best (WR)? Yes. Have I proven it? I wouldn’t say I have..still trying to take advantage of my opportunities, to put up those numbers."
Amari Cooper tonight: 10 catches on 11 targets, 116 yards, 2 TDs
— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) September 10, 2021
“We’re trying to create game plans, especially early in the year that give us an opportunity to be successful but also gives the defenses a lot of things to work on,” Moore said. “People only got so much time during the week, so when you give them a lot of stuff they’ve got to prepare for, ultimately they’ve got to pick and choose what they can focus on.
“The more we do all those things, I think it’s going to help us in the long run.”
‘Aggressively take what they give us’
Moore was the heavy favorite to fill the head-coaching role at his alma mater, Boise State, in January. The Cowboys ultimately signed him to a three-year extension rather than lose him. That same month, Philadelphia parted ways with head coach Doug Pederson and interviewed at least 10 candidates, including Moore.
Prescott, not yet under contract himself for 2021, corresponded with Moore through that process. The quarterback’s mindset: excitement that Moore was drawing attention Prescott considered worthwhile but “selfishly, that’s not something I wanted to see.”
When Moore’s return to the Cowboys solidified, Prescott encouraged his coordinator.
“Telling him my expectations and my standards that he’s going to have plenty more opportunities and plenty more interviews after this year, but let’s focus on this, let’s focus on getting better, one another, just with our relationship,” Prescott said. “Getting better as a play-caller for him, me as quarterback so we can help each other. Keep pushing so he can become that.”
Seven Cowboys offensive players interviewed for this story said Moore’s progression is noticeable. They cited Moore’s boundless creativity, installing one to two trick plays a week in practices, including an option pitch the Cowboys dialed up the last play of the first half vs. the Chargers, netting 48 yards to fall just 3 short of a touchdown as time expired.
They cited Moore’s clever exploitation of defenses, Dallas’ first touchdown in Los Angeles a fake left to Ezekiel Elliott that fellow running back Tony Pollard then carried around right as Dallas aimed to use star pass rusher Joey Bosa’s explosive get-off against him.
And then there is Moore’s patience, pounding the running game against a Chargers defense more concerned with the deep ball. The Cowboys believed they could hang in a shootout after falling to Tom Brady and the Buccaneers 31-29 in Week 1. They also believed they should not needlessly press vs. the Chargers.
Dak Prescott on Cowboys red-zone plays: "We’re just going to put our hand in the bag and pull out our tricks."
Tony Pollard TD gives Dallas a 7-0 lead vs. Chargers:pic.twitter.com/MbvqU7wa2L
— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) September 19, 2021
“Aggressively take what they give us,” Moore described his mantra.
He installs that aggressive mindset with confidence.
“He commands the room when he’s up there, and he’s got confidence in that role now,” Cowboys tight end Dalton Schultz told USA TODAY Sports. “You think about offenses, some of them kind of get pigeonholed into doing one thing because it’s the only thing they can do well. Our offense, we can kind of do it all.”
The Cowboys have mastered the art of moving the chains, leading the league with 27.5 first downs per game. They’ve converted 55.6% of third-down attempts (second most) and averaged 435 yards of offense (fourth). Red-zone stalls have stunted the yardage’s translation into an explosion of points (the Cowboys rank 14th with 24.5) though Dallas followed a 1-of-4 red zone performance against Tampa with success on 2-of-3 against the Chargers. And the Cowboys aren’t leaning too heavily on any one piece of the offense: their five touchdowns have been scored by four different players.
“Kellen, he’s on fire,” said Prescott, who has completed 76.5% of pass attempts for 640 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. “I’ll come back to the sidelines sometimes and tell him, ‘Man, just keep it up.’ Credit to him for him putting us all in great spots … and allowing us to play to our strengths.”
Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy described Moore as a “football junkie” who’s constantly digesting high school, college and professional football tape to re-imagine what his offense can do. Star receiver Amari Cooper’s route-running precision makes him a prime candidate for double moves. Elliott can pound the rock and impose his will as a pass protector, while running back Tony Pollard leveraged his suddenness to burst through holes last week for more than 100 yards.
Second-year wide receiver CeeDee Lamb, to some in the building, boasts the most potential for exciting playmaking. Add in an offensive line that has already been battle-tested by the likes of Ndamukong Suh and Joey Bosa, and the Cowboys do not fear Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox even as they account for him.
— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) September 10, 2021
“Every game has its own flair,” Moore said. “This week will have its own flavor. … We got to throw out all the positive, all of the negative and just got to go back to neutral and reset this thing and move on to Philly.”
Prescott’s skeptical assessment of the Eagles' defense might be telling. The Cowboys’ sixth-year quarterback questioned whether the coverages Philadelphia ran its first two games were a reliable indicator of its schematic plan. “A little bit of myself says they're just scheming up a little bit to pull it out against us,” he said. “Sometimes you do things different against your division than you do other opponents.”
Expect Moore to play that game, too. Under first-year head coach Nick Sirianni and defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon, Philadelphia has trounced Atlanta 32-6 and sputtered against the 49ers, falling 17-11. The Eagles have allowed a mere 283 defensive yards per game (fourth) including 162.5 through the air (third). The data suggests the Cowboys should test their run game — but Dallas is willing to bet Prescott and his weapons are superior to the Eagles’ prior opponents.
The club is also willing to bet on its rising coordinator, the man who spent 2016-17 as a teammate of five offensive starters but has since risen in the ranks. Moore said interviewing with the Eagles helped him hone his offensive principles. He still eyes the head-coaching ranks one day, but right now is focused on perfecting his Cowboys offensive system to power wins.
“Kellen has shown in his time as a coordinator that he can put his foot on the gas and put up big numbers,” McCarthy said. “I love that about him, his aggressiveness not only in calling the game but also in the game-plan component of it. Being patient and playing complementary football, it takes a discipline, and I thought he was excellent (against the Chargers).
“I think he’d be an excellent candidate for any head-coaching job. … He’s ready.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Cowboys look to keep Eagles guessing on 'MNF' with evolving offense