Kellen Moore and the Cowboys’ QB situation

Once again, after a stuttering performance in a pre-season game, people are asking “why is Kellen Moore the #2 quarterback in Dallas?”
It is a good question, which speaks to some tendencies in the NFL, but also shows up the appallingly persistent tendency for the Cowboys to rely on the #1 quarterback being healthy all of the time. One would have thought they had learned the hard way in the Tony Romo era about the downside of that approach, but it seems not.
First off, the persistence in using Kellen Moore is not surprising. The NFL is a fundamentally conservative league, with many coaching and personnel decisions made from a viewpoint of Better Be Safe Than Sorry.
Kellen Moore, as most people can see, does not have a strong arm. His arm strength may not even be at the same level as Chad Pennington. However, lack of arm strength did not stop Pennington from being a multi-year starter in the NFL. That was because Pennington, despite his physical limitations, was smart, accurate, almost never turned the ball over, and was a great on-field leader.
You have to contrast that with the sheer numbers of quarterbacks who entered the NFL able to chuck the ball a mile or more, but who quickly proved that while they might be able to throw the ball out of the opponent’s end zone, they had a lot missing in the smarts department. Jeff George and Ryan Mallett could throw the ball a mile, but nobody would ever be able to accuse them of being flush with football IQ. Ditto JaMarcus Russell. Big-armed busts abound in the NFL quarterback department. They tend to think that all they have to do is tell the wide receivers to get open, and they are bound to be able to throw TD passes. The arm will bail them out.
Since Moore did not have a strong arm in college, he learned to be smart with his play, and where he threw the ball. He did well at Boise State by becoming a smart player, knowing when and where to throw the ball and when to play safe. Coaches like that. They don’t have much patience for quarterbacks who consistently throw the ball to The Other Guys.
This is the “system adherence” scenario. Many averagely-talented players stay with NFL teams because they are “system guys”. They know the coaches’ system, which makes them valuable in terms of execution consistency and reliability. What most coaches dislike more than anything else is players freelancing and getting teams into “wild card” positions. That is one reason why Tim Tebow is no longer in the NFL.
The Cowboys therefore like Moore because he does not take unnecessary risks with the ball, and he knows the offensive system well, having been with the team for multiple seasons.
However, it is probably fair to say that Moore has reached his ceiling. What you see is what you are going to get going forward.
Moore’s presence as the #2 also creates playbook issues, because of his lack of a strong arm. Teams playing the Cowboys with Moore under center know that he is not going to be throwing the ball deep, so they can bring up the secondary, pack the box and try to shut down the running game and the short slants that Moore most often likes to throw. Dak Prescott is able to throw the ball deep, so they cannot do that with him in the game.
The problem for the Cowboys is that right now, the NFL has a quarterback problem everywhere. Many teams do not even have a viable #1 quarterback, let alone a quality backup. (ahem! Jacksonville!).
The big question is unanswered: if the Cowboys send Moore packing, who do they sign instead? Bear in mind that every short-term quarterback who the Cowboys signed for backup purposes in the last 5 years has been at best mediocre and at worst awful in game situations. Whether that is the quarterback or the system and the coaches is an interesting question. When a team is unable to bring a backup quarterback up to speed so that he is at least competent in a game situation, I tend to look at the coaches and the system as much as the quarterback. Matt Cassel was not exactly a useless quarterback, but he looked terrible playing for the Cowboys.
The Cowboys may huff and puff about Kellen Moore, but they have no experienced alternative, and the pickings are slim in the free agent quarterback market. There is, of course, a quarterback who remains unsigned, with the initials CK, but whether Jerry Jones can bring himself to sign off on that idea is a good question…

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