Dallas Cowboys

‘Little’ Kellen Moore has big opportunity with Dallas Cowboys

Cowboys quarterback Kellen Moore says there’s a major difference between watching a play develop from the sidelines and watching it develop from the pocket.
Cowboys quarterback Kellen Moore says there’s a major difference between watching a play develop from the sidelines and watching it develop from the pocket. Star-Telegram

Kellen Moore has been called undersized. Or, as Buffalo Bills coach Rex Ryan put it, Moore is just a “little bitty dude” who throws with “the wrong hand.”

Other terms to describe Moore include “immobile” and “lacking arm strength.” Quite simply, he doesn’t pass the eye test for an NFL quarterback, which is why he went undrafted in 2012.

But Moore, listed at 6 feet and 200 pounds, is also known as a “football nerd” with above-average smarts. He spends hours studying the game, something that started at a young age as the son of a high school football coach in Prosser, Wash.

Those hours paid off during a stellar college career. Even with his physical limitations, Moore went 50-3 as a four-year starter at Boise State, throwing for 142 touchdowns (second most in Football Bowl Subdivision history) and 14,667 passing yards (fifth most).

Now, Moore is finally getting an opportunity to show that can translate to the pro game. He’s been named the Dallas Cowboys’ starting quarterback — their fourth of the season — and will make his first career start Sunday in Buffalo.

There’s no question that Moore will be prepared for it.

“I feel good,” said Moore, who will become the first Boise State quarterback to start an NFL game.

“I think it’s just a matter of being able to stand back there and see it. From the sidelines, yeah, you understand all the concepts and all that. But it’s standing behind center, seeing the movements from that perspective and going through those reps and obviously doing it in the game.”

It’s been a long, grueling journey to this point for Moore, particularly for someone with his college résumé. But Moore has carved out a niche, spending three-plus seasons with Detroit and then joining the Cowboys’ practice squad earlier this season.

Moore has no bigger supporter than Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, who was the Lions’ offensive coordinator during Moore’s first two professional seasons. His former Lions teammates couldn’t be happier for his opportunity, either.

“Kellen is one of those guys who keeps a really calm demeanor. I think that’s his biggest trait is that he plays with ice water in his veins,” Linehan said. “I’ve got all the confidence in the world in the guy. I believe in him more than you can imagine. It’ll be fun to see him get his shot.”

Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford said he is “fired up” that Moore is finally getting an opportunity. Stafford, however, didn’t feel he needed to offer any advice.

“He doesn’t need any advice from me,” Stafford told The Detroit News. “He knows what he’s doing.”

Getting his shot hasn’t been easy for Moore. After all, it’s never easy to stay patient. Doubts about whether this kind of moment would come could have crept in.

His opportunities, for the most part, have been limited to running the scout team and maximizing game action during the preseason.

“You’re going to get opportunities one way or the other, whether it’s been in the preseason in the past or this past week,” Moore said. “You’ve got to be ready for those opportunities and you have to take advantage of those when they come.”

For Moore, it’s mostly been continued accumulation of football knowledge. This is a guy who once said after a college win that “it takes 10,000 hours to be an expert, I just heard in school.”

He joked about whether he’s reached the 10,000-hour mark, saying: “The outlier is there. Yeah, I don’t know … might be close, but we’ll see.”

Yes, Sunday’s game will be somewhat of a litmus test.

Maybe Moore will show signs that he has the ability to play at this level, and be a dependable backup in the future. Or maybe Moore will show that, as many experts predicted, his physical limitations make him a fringe NFL quarterback.

Dane Brugler, an analyst for NFLDraftScout.com and CBS Sports, raved about Moore’s mental makeup coming out of college but had questions about his arm, mechanics and stature.

Is Brugler surprised to see Moore has lasted in the league this long?

“Yes and no. He’s such a bright player, but the physical traits just aren’t there and those shortcomings limit his ceiling in the NFL,” Brugler said. “Many NFL teams and coaches are hyper-focused on size, arm strength and mobility at the quarterback position, which is understandable, but that allows for guys like Moore to never get a chance.

“However, his intelligence and understanding of the playbook make him an asset in the quarterback room during the week, and that’s the main reason he’s still collecting a paycheck.”

And there’s no question that undersized players have made it in this league, particularly at the quarterback position. Russell Wilson has taken Seattle to the past two Super Bowls, and measured under 5-foot-11 at the NFL Scouting Combine. Drew Brees is also a shorter quarterback who has gotten it done at a high level.

To Cowboys center Travis Frederick, who played with Wilson at Wisconsin, certain players can get pigeonholed because of their size. Oftentimes, unfairly.

“With Russell, the thing was he was always too short and he was out to prove that was not the case,” Frederick said. “And I think he’s making a compelling argument that that’s not the case. So I think that does get tough for guys.

“I don’t think it’s specific to quarterbacks, either. You talk to offensive linemen, well, that guy is just a tackle and then he moves into guard. Or his arms aren’t long enough. Or, you know, defensive linemen, he’s not fast enough. Whatever it is, people have certain stereotypes that they place on things and people can always outplay those.”

This is not to say Moore is the next Wilson or Brees. Far from it.

As Brugler said, “Those two also had impressive arm talent, polished technique and mobility to throw from different platforms. So when size is the only trait missing from the equation, the player will definitely receive attention from the NFL and get their chance. Moore is missing more than just the size trait, but he’s above average above the neck, which can keep him afloat in the NFL for a while.”

Moore will get his opportunity these next two weeks, and it should help that he was able to knock some rust off last weekend against the New York Jets. He replaced Matt Cassel in the second quarter and completed 15 of 25 passes for 158 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions for an uninspiring 52.2 passer rating.

Moore admitted it wasn’t the most impressive debut, and he has to limit the turnovers. But he gained a certain amount of respect from his teammates with how he handled himself in the huddle.

“I thought he was really poised,” tight end Jason Witten said. “For most of us, I know for myself, earlier that week was the first time we even caught a ball from him in a lot of ways. But he came in, he’s smart, you could tell he was ready for that opportunity. So I have a lot of respect for how he’s approached it, how he’s learned the system.”

Moore spoke confidently and seemed unfazed by the amount of media attention he garnered over week. He’s gone largely unnoticed in his time with the Cowboys but had dozens of reporters surrounding him and peppering him with questions Wednesday. That’s the typical treatment for someone quarterbacking America’s Team.

But, hey, it’s nothing new for Moore. He’s a superstar in Boise, as his former college teammate and current teammate Tyrone Crawford said.

“He’s Boise. He is Boise, yeah,” Crawford said. “They love him there. He did great there. I mean, he took a school like Boise and walked out with three losses his whole career, so he’s a star up there.

“I’m just excited he’s getting his shot. I know the type of talent Kellen has got, and that’s all I ever wanted for him — a shot.”

Drew Davison: 817-390-7760, @drewdavison

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