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Why the Cowboys are doomed

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Divisional Round - Green Bay Packers v Dallas Cowboys
In which Dak Prescott grows a third arm
Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

I’m gonna show my age here and say that the Dallas Cowboys aren’t “America’s Team.” Over the past ten seasons, they have gone a respectable 92-68, but that comes with a 2-4 playoff record and rather than having extreme highs and lows, they have largely bounced between mediocre and good without breaking through to greatness.

The 13-3 campaign in 2016 is impressive, but I’m guessing that this year the Cowboys are doomed to the Jason Garrett 8-8 special.

Where they were

The last three seasons have been a bit of a rollercoaster for Dallas fans. After three consecutive 8-8 seasons, they finally broke through for a 12-win campaign, only to go 4-12 the next year and then 13-3 in 2016. The 13-3 is all the more impressive because it wasn’t Tony Romo leading the team, but an unheralded mid-round pick. He piloted the offense to a top-5 finish in points scored and the defense shaped up into a top-5 unit by points allowed.

Cowboys 2016

Stat Result
Stat Result
Point differential 115
Pythag record 10.9-5.1
Total DVOA (rank) 21.0% (2)
Off. DVOA 19.7% (3)
Def. DVOA 0.8% (17)
ST. DVOA 1.4% (10)

Wow, so the defense managed to only allow 306 points (5th), but ranked 17th in DVOA. Since it is literally impossible for DVOA to be wrong, I did some investigating. The Cowboys faced an average slate of opposing offenses. They also weren’t a particularly stout redzone defense, ranking 15th in TDs/play in the redzone. The one thing they did do particularly well was prevent opponent drives. They ranked 28th in defensive drives, so despite ranking 12th in score%, 13th in TD allowed%, and 15th in FG%, they managed to have a top-5 scoring defense.

Overall, the Cowboys got a little lucky with their record, playing at an 11-5 clip compared to their actual record of 13-3. The offense appears legit, but as noted above, the defense less so. Controlling the pace of the game sounds like a great way to win games, but when the defense is average on a per-drive basis, the offense needs to step up consistently.

What they gained

Jerry Jones selected nine players in the NFL draft and seven of them were on the defensive side of the ball. However, over half of those draftees were selected after the fifth round. Getting much production out of this class is going to be difficult with that many late-round flyers.

The most interesting player they drafted was defensive end Taco Charlton. A) Delicious, and B) Pass rushers are always exciting. Unfortunately for Dallas, Charlton is not particularly athletic, coming in at a 0.2 z-score per Zach Whitman’s SPARQ. This is corroborated by Justis Mosqueda’s Force Player metric. First-round edge players who fail to meet this threshold average a disappointing 4.45 sacks a season.

Another interesting player who they are gaining this year is linebacker Jaylon Smith. A nerve issue/injury was discovered in the run-up to the draft. The Cowboys drafted him with the 34rd overall pick in the 2016 draft, knowing that he wasn’t going to play his rookie season. Their gamble may pay off, and he seems to be making some progress, but it’s fair to still have cause for concern and skepticism until he’s cleared to play and shows it on the field. But they could be adding a very talented LB to their defense.

In free agency, Jones was pretty frugal. (After years of restructuring Romo’s cap hits, he had to be.) He re-signed WR Terrance Williams to a 4-year, $17 million dollar contract with less than $10 million guaranteed and added CB Nolan Carroll (no relation to Pete) on a 3-year, $10 million deal. Out of the remaining six contracts, no other deal was worth more than $2 million and only one was for more than a year. None of these contracts as the potential to sink the team, but the downside is that it is unlikely that any of them will end up being impact players.

What they lost

I am not sure what exactly is league average, but the Cowboys had a lot of players signed away. Four players were signed away on contracts worth over $20 million. An additional three players were signed to contracts worth $5 million or more. The biggest name is probably Ron Leary, the 28 year old guard who signed with the Denver Broncos. They also lost four members of their secondary, with Barry Church, Brandon Carr, J.J. Wilcox, and Morris Claiborne leaving the team. Church was a key starter at strong safety, while Carr and Claiborne represented 50% of the team’s snaps at cornerback in 2016 and those four players combined for over 2600 defensive snaps total. Wilcox was an important backup, starting 38 games over the last four seasons.

Additionally, long time tackle Doug Free retired. Free had started 107 of a possible 112 games in Dallas since 2010.

The other big loss is Romo. As a Seahawks fan, I will always love him for botching the hold against Seattle in the 2006 wild card round. However, Romo got a lot of crap throughout his career despite being one of the best QBs in the NFL. He is currently 4th on both the all-time passer rating leaderboard and all-time ANY/A leaderboard. While it seems out of place to say that losing Romo is a big deal because they already have a QB who is better than Derek Carr, it seems even odder to not mention it at all given how good Romo was.

What comes next

Dallas faces an uphill road to get back to the playoffs. Per the Football Outsiders Almanac, they have the second toughest schedule in the league. Every team in the NFC East is, at the very least, capable of beating every other team in the NFC East. They are also battling both western divisions and their first place finish in 2016 earned them the privilege of playing both Atlanta and Green Bay. Only the games against San Francisco and the LA Rams seem like obvious wins for the Cowboys. Winning supremacy of the East and the NFC at large is going to come down to the performance of Dak Prescott, tackle La’el Collins, and two rookie mid-round defensive backs.

I like Prescott a lot. He deals with a lot of the same BS excuses that Russell Wilson has for his career. I will flag any of that “he is only good because of the run game” stuff in the comments. Dak had elite production last season. His passer rating ranked 3rd best, his YPA ranked 4th, his ANY/A ranked 3rd, INT% tied for 2nd, and his QBR ranked 3rd. The dude was a top-5 NFL QB last year. However, that level of production is difficult to sustain for any QB, let alone for a rookie who now has to face defenses with a year of NFL tape on him. To expect him to not regress towards league average would be foolhardy. Player development is rarely a straight line.

Prescott could take a step back in his second year and it wouldn’t mean that he is terrible or that year one was a Nick Foles-type fluke. As a QB, the team’s fortunes revolve around his ability. If he can match or exceed his first year, they are easily in the top tier of NFC contenders. But it’s far from certain that he will.

Collins is a fascinating story. Just a few days before the draft, it was leaked that he was wanted for questioning in a double-homicide investigation. Essentially from the start, it seemed like he was not a suspect, but knew one of the victims. Rated as one of the best offensive linemen in the class, he slid out of the first round. His agent then threatened to refuse to sign a contract if he was drafted after the third round and he ended up going undrafted before signing an UDFA contract with Dallas. When Leary was injured in 2015, he stepped in and essentially won the job. Unfortunately, the following season he tore a ligament in his toe in week three and on the IR by October 4. Fortunately, the injury was early enough in the season that he has had almost a year to heal. However, return from injury is never certain. He could return to his old form or he could play like a third year UDFA. The Cowboys think that the former is more likely, signing in him a 2-year, $15.4 million extension as I am in the process of writing this. With his veteran backup gone, his performance could be key in determining whether the Dallas OL remains the class of the NFL.

Colorado CB Chidobe Awuzie was selected with pick 2.60 and Michigan CB Jourdan Lewis was selected at 3.92. These players could be key to whether or not Dallas can maintain an effective secondary. Awuzie was a part of a fierce defense that helped Colorado win the Pac-10 South. He also put on a bit of a show at the combine, earning a 2.0 z-score in Zach Whitman’s SPARQ metric. Despite his athleticism, he did not put up huge numbers. Per NFL.com, he had three INTs and 22 pass breakups over his final two years. His teammate in the backfield Tedric Thompson had 10 interceptions and 24 pass breakups over the same time.

The Cowboys doubled down on CBs, selecting Lewis 32 selections later. Lewis was a member of the Michigan defense that was second in the FBS by points allowed. He missed three games of his senior year, but had four INTs and 30 pass breakups over his final two seasons. Unlike Awuzie, he did not test well, earning a -0.6 z-score. I can’t tell you whether these guys were over- or under-drafted, but Dallas needs them to perform in order to remain at the top of the NFC.

Prediction

The Cowboys had a good team last year and is not obviously headed towards crushing regression in any one area. However, there are several areas due for minor regression that could add up to knocking a few wins off their 2016 record. First, they have a tougher schedule. Second, there is some inherent uncertainty in being led by a second year rookie, even one as impressive as Dak was last year. Third, they have 2500+ snaps to replace in their secondary alone, which they addressed with two mid round rookies and Nolan Carroll.

I predict that these small declines and a dash of bad luck add up to the all-too-familiar 8-8, making their Week 16 matchup against the Seahawks all that less exciting.