FRISCO, Texas — If this all feels a little familiar with the Dallas Cowboys, well, that’s because it is.
In 2007, Jason Garrett was a young coach recently removed from his playing career and in his first year as Cowboys offensive coordinator. He had a promising young quarterback, coming off a playoff season in Tony Romo. The Cowboys had a hard-charging running back and a shiftier complement in Marion Barber and Julius Jones, respectively. There was a Pro Bowl tight end in Jason Witten and a Pro Bowl receiver in Terrell Owens with multiple targets that made it difficult for defenses to guard the entire field. And there was an offensive line with three Pro Bowlers.
Now 2019, Kellen Moore recently is removed from his playing career and in his first year as Cowboys offensive coordinator. He has a promising young quarterback who is coming off a playoff season in Dak Prescott. He has a hard-charging running back and a shiftier complement in Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard, respectively. Witten is still at tight end, and there is a Pro Bowl receiver in Amari Cooper with multiple targets that make it difficult for defenses to guard the entire field. And there is an offensive line with three Pro Bowlers.
“I’m sure you can always find similarities, but every team is different, every coach is different, every situation is different,” Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said. “But, obviously, there are similarities to Kellen being a backup in this league, and I think he always saw himself eventually coaching, just like Jason I think always saw himself being a coach.”
In 2007, the Cowboys opened up with four straight games with at least 34 points and had at least 431 yards in three of the four games.
In the first three games of 2019, the Cowboys have opened with three straight games of at least 31 points and 474 yards on offense.
By the end of 2007, the Cowboys scored 455 points, which was second-best in franchise history at that point, and Garrett was among the most sought-after assistants in head-coach searches. The Baltimore Ravens and Atlanta Falcons were ready to make Garrett their coach before he opted to remain with the Cowboys.
If the Dallas offense continues to produce and the wins pile up, Moore could be among the most sought-after assistants in head-coaching searches after the season — especially considering the recent trend of owners hiring bright, young, offensive-minded coaches, such as Kyle Shanahan (49ers), Sean McVay (Rams), Matt LaFleur (Packers), Zac Taylor (Bengals) and Kliff Kingsbury (Cardinals).
“We just got started, but the respect I’ve always talked about and the way I’ve idolized Kellen, I’ve always thought one day he’ll have that option,” Prescott said. “He’ll be able to be a head coach. But that’s just the way he takes care of his business, the way he handles himself, all of that will come in due time.”
Moore isn’t thinking about his next job. He’s worried about finding ways to beat the New Orleans Saints‘ pressure-heavy defense Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC). Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones isn’t concerned about losing Moore after one season as a playcaller just yet, either.
There is a history of teams looking at the Cowboys’ staff for head coaches. Norv Turner called plays for three seasons before he was hired away by the Washington Redskins after back-to-back Super Bowl wins in 1992 and ’93.
In 2004, Sean Payton was ready to accept the Oakland Raiders‘ job after calling plays for Bill Parcells before the Hall of Fame coach and Jerry Jones told him to remain patient. And Jones raised Payton’s pay to $1 million a season. The next year, Payton became the Saints’ coach and has been there since.
Then, there was Garrett in 2007.
“When I’m around someone like a Kellen or around anybody — a Jason, really, any of those guys — it’s not in me to say, ‘Oh, boy, we’re not going to get him.’ It’s more in me to help them,” Jerry Jones said. “We had two coaches that left here early in the ’90s, very early in the 90s and nobody worked harder to help them to get the head-coaching job than I did when they left. Two of them that were coordinators for the Cowboys when we won Super Bowls [Dave Wannstedt, Turner].
“That’s why we do this stuff. … I just look at it as though, picture if you’re a college coach and you’ve got a lot of guys coming through and making it in the pros. That actually in a weird way helps them. So to that end, that will help us.”
Shades of Payton
At one time, Payton was like Moore — an up-and-coming coordinator with the New York Giants — but he lost some of his shine when those duties were taken away by Jim Fassel. When he went to Dallas in 2003, he had Parcells in his ear as he called plays. Though Parcells could be overbearing, Payton made an offense that lacked multiple high-end playmakers viable in his two years.
Paired with quarterback Drew Brees with the Saints, Payton — with help from his offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael — is viewed as one of the game’s brightest minds.
“Ultimately, it’s what you do during the week in preparation. It’s how you practice, how you prepare,” Payton said. “I say it all the time: I think oftentimes we’re winning on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. So when you get to the game, your players, your quarterback especially, you kind of anticipate what’s getting ready to come.”
Moore has studied Payton’s offenses over the years. He has studied offenses from around the league, especially those of coaches in his age bracket, such as McVay and Shanahan. He has studied offenses his entire life.
He estimated he called his first play when he was 9 years old. He used to collect playbooks, buying them on the internet while growing up. During his record-setting quarterback career at Boise State, teammates were amazed how quickly he could see things develop.
He grew up playing video games, growing frustrated at times over the lack of realism. And he has a use for analytics, too.
“I’m 31, so …,” he chuckled. “I was kind of raised maybe around some of the numbers and all that sort of stuff. I think it’s fascinating stuff. At the end of the day, you’ve got to use it as part of the process. You’ve got to still recognize the football aspect and the gut feel, so to speak.”
Though he played in three pro games (all with the Cowboys in 2015), he actually has been calling plays for some time — if just in his mind.
“Naturally, when you are sitting on the sideline going though the game, treating it a little bit different, trying to figure out, ‘OK, what are we maybe going to hear?’ And then you hear it, and you kind of go through the thought process of why they went with that approach,” Moore said. “I’ve been around some good ones. Scott [Linehan] has been awesome all these years. We had Joe Lombardi in Detroit, who came from New Orleans. So you learn from all those guys and hopefully pick up a few things. … You probably put yourself in those situations so maybe one day when you are in that situation, you have kind of gone through the process a little bit.”
As a backup quarterback for most of his career, Garrett thought similarly. When he became the Cowboys’ playcaller in 2007, he was glad coach Wade Phillips had so much situational work in practice that allowed him to get used to his new job. As Moore prepared for his role, Garrett made sure the Cowboys had even more situational work.
“It helps the offensive playcaller, helps the defensive playcaller and helps all the guys around them not to be so scripted in practice,” Garrett said. “I think practicing it and doing it again and again and again and then reflecting back afterwards and saying, ‘Oh, that wasn’t very good. We can probably do that over again. I wouldn’t call that. I wouldn’t [have] done it from this,’ or whatever. You just have to be honest with yourself as you go.”
Witten, who has 10 catches and two touchdowns in his return after a year away, is the on-field thread between 2007 and 2019.
He said there is a difference between then and now because Garrett implemented an entirely new offense from what Parcells used. Moore has taken the “nuts and bolts” of the Garrett offense and added wrinkles.
If there is a sameness, it is in mindset.
“The best offenses, I feel like they’re going to control and dictate, or at least you’re going to try to,” Witten said. “That year, I constantly felt like we were on the attack. I think back to ’07 and this team, we never feel like we’re out of a game offensively.”
When the Cowboys decided to move away from Linehan, they wanted to tap into a younger offensive mind in part because of the success they had seen from other young playcallers across the league. Romo offered high praise for Moore to the Joneses. So did Prescott. Garrett signed off on the move, too.
“Everybody is comfortable with him,” Stephen Jones said. “He’s got a great way about him. He’s got a great nervous system for the job, and I’m going to be surprised if he doesn’t continue to have really good success.”
ESPN New Orleans Saints reporter Mike Triplett contributed to this story.