LOS ANGELES — This match-up has been circled since the schedule came out for many reasons. For ESPN, it is another reason to put “America’s Team” on the national stage.
For the Cowboys, it is a chance to redeem themselves after the 42-10 thrashing they took from the San Francisco 49ers last Sunday Night. It is a chance for the Chargers to stay one game behind the Chiefs and show they have fixed some defensive woes since the J.C. Jackson trade.
For Chargers offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy, and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, this is personal…even if no one is saying it.
The NFL world was surprised on January 29th when the news broke that Moore would not be returning as the offensive coordinator.
He had been groomed to be the next head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. He started as a quarterback, transitioned to quarterback’s coach and then a four-year stint as offensive coordinator.
Moore is young, innovative, and the offense thrived during his tenure. He had a similar path as former Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett, but it all came crashing down when he was dismissed abruptly.
A couple of hours later, the Chargers acted quickly, knowing that Moore was a hot commodity. They hired him as their offensive coordinator. They matched him up with quarterback Justin Herbert.
So why did it come to an end?
“Well, I had everything to do with that,” Jones said during his weekly interview on Friday with 105.3 The Fan. “I wanted, and Mike wanted too, but I wanted Mike — normally, with Mike’s background, when he came in, he would have come in in charge of the offense and specifically calling the plays. I normally would have done that. But we didn’t do it because we had Kellen, and we thought that was the best way to win games.
“I don’t have to speculate; I know exactly what we did, and I know the same dynamics, the same decision-making last year decided to go forward with Mike calling the plays.”
Then, to add fuel to the fire, McCarthy said this last March.
“I’ve been where Kellen’s been,” McCarthy said, via Michael Gehlken of the Dallas Morning News. “Kellen wants to light the scoreboard up, but I want him to run the damn ball so I can rest my defense. I think when you’re a coordinator, you know but you’re in charge of the offense. Being a head coach and being a play caller, you’re a little more in tune with (everything). I don’t desire to be the No. 1 offense in the league. I want to be the No. 1 team in the league with the number of wins and a championship. And if we’ve got to give up some production and take care of the ball a little better to get that, then that’s what we’ll do because we have a really good defense.”
Statistically, the Cowboys have declined while the Chargers have improved offensively, but more on that in a second.
McCarthy talked about wanting to “run the damn ball,” so last season with Moore, they had a 51-49 pass-to-run balance while the Chargers had a 64-36.
This season, Dallas is at 53-47, not much of an improvement from last year, while the Chargers are at 58-42. Keep in mind that Austin Ekeler hasn’t been in the lineup for three weeks with a high ankle sprain.
Moore, though, is downplaying this as a revenge game, adding that he appreciates the Cowboys franchise for his eight seasons with them.
“I think a lot of that stuff is pretty overrated,” Moore said Friday. “At the end of the day, It’s getting on the field and playing 11-on-11.”
The Chargers have averaged five more offensive points per game this season, while the Cowboys are averaging 5.2 points less than last year.
Even after the 2-0 start, there were questions about the Cowboys offense, especially quarterback Dak Prescott. A lackluster start to the season, throwing for five touchdowns and four interceptions. He had three last weekend.
The red zone touchdown percentage is a big area that both teams have turned around. The Cowboys scored at an NFL-best 71.4% of the time last season, while the Chargers scored 54.6% (18th in the NFL). Moore’s Chargers have scored 68.8% (fifth in the NFL), while Dallas is at 28th best 36.8%.
“Sometimes redzone turns in this big old science project,” Moore explained. “When you get into the red zone, there’s still first and second down, there’s still third downs, there are a lot of just traditional situations, the space is just different. You have to, obviously, plan accordingly for that, but I think that our guys have done a nice job down there.”
One of the overrated aspects of this game is that Moore will be able to call out McCarthy’s offense and vice versa. Calls will be changed, and Moore has different personnel with the Chargers than in Dallas.
“I think there was a system in place, and to my understanding, they may have kept some of the languages the same for their offensive players, but he’s running some familiar concepts,” McCarthy said 105.3 The Fan. “But he’s going a different direction too; he’s got players that he’s tailoring his games to, but yeah, there’s some similarities.”
It hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows for the Chargers offense; they had some struggles, like the ending against Tennessee, not scoring in the second half against the Raiders, and the running game needing work.
Some outside factors are that all-pro center Corey Linsley is out for at least three more weeks with an illness, Ekeler was out for three games, and they are still adjusting to life without Mike Williams.
“We’ve had a few games where you have a few lulls,” Moore said. “That happens, especially early in the season, you kind of have these up-and-down type things.”
They get Ekeler back this Monday, while the most significant assignment for Moore will be the integration of first-round receiver Quentin Johnston.
The Moore effect is felt with Herbert. The Chargers quarterback has turned the ball over only once, and it was a bad pass, but he has been clean apart from that this season.
Herbert’s passing rating in each quarter goes from 97.0 in the first, to 116.9 in the second, falls to 87.7 in the third, then rises to 122.3 in the fourth quarter. His completion percentage jumps up from 69.2. in the third quarter to 73.5 in the fourth.
“He’s done a great job of communicating with us what he expects, what he sees and all of the things that go in through a game plan each week,” Herbert said Thursday.
After the comments made by McCarthy last March and the fact that Moore spent eight years in Dallas to just be shoved out of the door, they can both downplay it, but this is personal.
“There’s no bells and whistles for this one,” McCarthy said on 105.3 The Fan. “This is Game 6. My focus has always been, and it’s the way I view schedules. I think a lot of NFL scheduling is it’s not as much who you play; it’s when you play them. (Chargers are coming off their bye week) … He has an excellent opportunity that he’s doing a very nice job with.”
The Chargers have welcomed the addition of Moore, and as he said, the offense will continue to grow as the season progresses. The familiarity between Herbert with receivers Josh Palmer and Johnston will grow.
Before the game, the storylines like this one are interesting to dissect, but the Chargers are expecting the Cowboys best punch after being embarrassed against the 49ers last week.
When the ball is kicked off on Monday night, this will be just another game that each team desperately needs to win.
“It’s just the game within the game,” Staley said about Moore facing his former team. “It’s going to be about the players on the field, the players and how they play.”