FRISCO, Texas — The seconds tick off the clock in a two-minute drill at the end of the fifth organized team activity of the Dallas Cowboys‘ offseason.
Music plays over the loud speakers inside the Ford Center as quarterback Dak Prescott looks about 15 yards to his left at Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, but it is nothing like the overwhelming sound that is heard on a Sunday night inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans.
It is only May, but to Prescott, the offense and Moore, it might as well be late September when they actually will be in New Orleans for what could be a crucial NFC matchup.
Moore presses the button on a walkie-talkie and calls a play in to Prescott’s earpiece.
“You’ve obviously got to be able to anticipate some stuff,” said Moore, who is in his first few months as the Cowboys’ playcaller. “It’s first down, you’re expecting it to be good, but sometimes you’ve got to plan, something unfortunate happens and you’ve got to be ready to have a call ready right then and there.”
Before the snap, Connor Williams is flagged for a false start, pushing the offense back five yards. Moore calls in another play, and Prescott finds tight end Blake Jarwin for a 9-yard gain. Seven plays later, Prescott spikes the ball to stop the clock and sets up a tying field goal by Kasey Redfern.
“Just a sense of calmness and confidence, honestly,” Prescott said of what he wants from the person talking in his ear during games. “I get that from Kellen. I’ve gotten that from him for the last few years. You got it from when he was playing the game to back to my rookie year. He’s one of those guys I looked at and it almost knocked my confidence down just by the way he carried himself, the way he made plays on the field. But now to have him as a coach, you know when he’s calling plays, he believes in it. He’s very convicted about it. And you can feel it.”
In addition to making his offseason additions to the offense as the first-year coordinator, Moore has to learn the ins and outs of calling the plays in to Prescott. He never did that in his time as a backup quarterback with the Detroit Lions or with the Cowboys. He did not do it during his stellar career at Boise State, where he won 50 games.
The first time he called plays in a game was at the Pro Bowl last January, when he was the Cowboys’ quarterbacks coach and not a coordinator.
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“We figured it out the day of,” Moore said. “Good test run.”
It allowed Moore to learn some of the intricacies of how the coach-to-player communication system works.
“There’s a timing aspect of it,” Moore said. “It cuts off at 15 [seconds left on the play clock] but it doesn’t open up right away right after the snap, so you’ve got to get used to the timing. The whistle blows and you’ve got to wait that second before it lets you back in. If you’re too quick, you’re going to be sitting there like you’re talking and Dak’s not hearing anything. Fortunately Dak and I, we kind of understand each other. He knows if he’s not heard anything for a few seconds, he’ll peek back and [say], ‘I’ve got nothing going on,’ so we can work it out.”
The offseason has given him more of a test run. So will training camp and the four preseason games. Moore will be on the sideline during the season after last season’s offensive coordinator, Scott Linehan, called plays from the coach’s booth. Quarterbacks coach Jon Kitna will serve as Moore’s eyes from above.
“You get used to presenting it in a certain way because it becomes slightly different than when you’re normally talking,” Moore said. “So sometimes you’ve got to slow down a touch.”
But not too much, because there is not a lot of time between plays. After Moore calls in a play, his mind already races to what he could call next, good or bad. If a quarterback needs to move on quickly from a poor read or throw, a coordinator has to move on even quicker.
Those who know Moore the best, dating to his Boise State days, say his fast-moving mind is his best asset.
“One thing with him is his voice carries so much credibility,” said Matt Miller, one of his favorite receivers at Boise State and now the offensive coordinator at Montana State. “He’d get up in the front of the room and everyone’s going to be locked into what he’s saying. He’s so clear and concise with what he’s saying that you’re totally engaged. It’s not what you say but how you say it, and he has a way of giving you words that simplify things so it’s, ‘All right, this is the plan. Let’s go execute the best we can.'”
When Cowboys coach Jason Garrett was the backup quarterback, he would relay the plays to Troy Aikman. When he coached under Nick Saban with the Miami Dolphins, he would relay the plays to the quarterback.
As a player, Garrett would practice calling plays in a huddle, and that’s something he continues to tell his quarterbacks. He did the same thing when he called plays for the Cowboys from 2007 through 2012.
“You’re always thinking about it, and then I just think it’s important to articulate it,” Garrett said. “It’s simple to say it out loud. You’re going to do it a lot. You don’t want to make mistakes. You don’t want to hesitate. You want to rehearse it. I always felt like when I was playing or when I was coaching, saying it out loud helped me understand it better and it helped me be better at it when the game started.”
Practices are often scripted, but Garrett uses different play-it-out scenarios in the workouts that are not scripted. Moore said that has helped him get accustomed to the pace he needs as a playcaller.
“When I was calling plays, I wanted to be in those situations,” Garrett said. “I didn’t want to just look at a script in practice and just call plays over and over and over again. I wanted to be in it, ‘What is it? It’s third-and-2. It’s third-and-5. OK, where am I going to?’ You have to constantly rehearse those things. You have to practice those things as players, but you have to practice those things as coaches, too.”