Versatile Cowboys tight ends force defenses to play Whac-A-Mole

ARLINGTON, Texas – The celebration was conceived in the Dallas Cowboys’ tight end room at the start of the week. They knew there would be the giant Salvation Army kettles in the end zone on Thanksgiving, and rookie Jake Ferguson got to thinking.

“We were just brainstorming, ‘What can we do?’” Ferguson said. “We can up-and-down and what if all three of us are in there and we just play Whac-A-Mole?”

So when fellow rookie tight end Peyton Hendershot scored on a 2-yard run in the fourth quarter of the Cowboys’ 28-20 win against the New York Giants, Ferguson, Dalton Schultz and Sean McKeon all jumped on the kettle. And Hendershot went to Whac-A-Mole mode as each tight end popped up.

Schultz did not know if all three of them could fit.

“I didn’t know that it was squishy either,” Schultz said.

But "Whac-A-Mole" might be an apt description for the tight ends.

Schultz had two touchdowns against the Giants on four catches for 31 yards. He is the most accomplished tight end of the group. Ferguson, a fourth-round pick, had three catches for 57 yards --including a 30-yard catch-and-run in which he leaped over defensive back Jason Pinnock -- and is their best blocker. Hendershot had the first rushing score of his career. McKeon is an effective blocker and a core special-teamer.

For the first time since Week 17 of the 2018 season, the Cowboys had three touchdowns from tight ends. Since Week 6, the Cowboys have five receiving touchdowns from tight ends, tied with the Kansas City Chiefs and Chicago Bears for second-most in the league, one behind the New Orleans Saints.

Hendershot’s touchdown came with four tight ends on the field, like Ezekiel Elliott’s touchdown runs last week against the Minnesota Vikings. The Cowboys have used 14 personnel (one back, four tight ends) seven times this season and have scored three touchdowns. The rest of the NFL has four plays with four tight ends on the field, all from the Saints, if you count part-time quarterback Taysom Hill as a tight end.

“Those guys being as talented as they are, some different guys, faster guys, bigger guys, whatever it is,” quarterback Dak Prescott said. “Yeah, we can change some things up, get into some different looks, spread it out. Come back in, tight formations, run the ball or play-action off of that. But that’s all a good problem for [offensive coordinator Kellen Moore] to sit back and get into the lab and figure out matchups that we can create. I know he’s going to do exactly that.”

As a good portion of the league looks to spread it out with multiple wide receiver formations, the Cowboys are going in another direction that is more in line with old-school football. At least that’s what many think when they see multiple tight end sets.

“It’s hard to stop,” Ferguson said. “I mean I’m not on the defensive side, but I can only imagine you see three tight ends coming out, most every team is going to think run. Sometimes we start out and we’re in a pass and it’s just mixing up personnel and plays. I mean it keeps them on their toes.”

The Cowboys have run the ball efficiently for a good portion of the season, but especially over the past six games. During that span, the fewest amount of rushing yards they had was 134. Against the Gaints, they had 39 carries for 169 yards, led by Elliott’s 92 yards on 16 carries.

“I’m a big fan of the tight end position. Frankly, next to the quarterback, it’s the most demanding position as far as job responsibility, there’s involvement in the run, the protection and the pass,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “It’s been very useful for us this past month.”

But can it be the predominant way the Cowboys play?

Tight ends coach Lunda Wells was incredulous when asked that question during the bye week

“Absolutely. Why not? Why not? I mean we’re athletes in there. We’re not glass-eaters now. We can haul any role that you want to give, and that’s how we look at our mindset,” Wells said. “Run game, we’re O-linemen. Pass protection, we’re offensive linemen … Then the pass game, we’re receivers. We’re elusive. We’re athletic, and that’s how we train, and that’s how we go about our business. But absolutely we can survive that way if we have to.”