Dallas has been out-gained by 1,280 yards this season, the worst margin in the NFL. But with a 7-6 record, the Cowboys are hardly considered a bad team. So how can we reconcile these two facts?
In general, gaining yards and preventing opponents from gaining yards are correlated with success. The other teams in the bottom five in yards margin (the Jaguars, Vikings, Bucs, and Rams) are a combined 16-35-1, while the top three teams in yards margin are 32-8 (the Broncos, Saints, and Seahawks). On the other hand, as a statistic, “yards” is a flawed measure of team success. So let’s begin our investigation with a threshold question:
1) Are the Cowboys a bad team with a good record, or a good team with a bad yardage differential?
Dallas has outscored its opponents this year and has 6.7 Pythagorean wins, so it’s not as if the Cowboys have overachieved in that regard. Dallas is 1-3 in games decided by 3 or fewer points, and 4-3 in games decided by a touchdown or less, so nothing stands out there, either. Football Outsiders has Dallas 15th in the league, although part of that is because the Cowboys rank 8th in special teams (a part of the game that is ignored when looking at yards). Advanced NFL Stats has Dallas down at 24th, which is still quite a bit higher than 32nd.
The first clue about the discrepancy between the Cowboys rank in yards and wins is turnovers. Advanced NFL Stats (and, to a lesser extent, Football Outsiders) views turnovers as largely random events; a team that has a very good turnover differential is therefore seen — on average — as being a bit lucky, so in ANS’ ratings, that team won’t get any extra credit for having a strong turnover differential.
Through fourteen weeks, Dallas ranks 3rd in the NFL in turnover margin, as Tony Romo has only thrown 7 interceptions this season. In fact, the Cowboys lead the NFL in interception rate at 1.5%. That’s impressive, but is it sustainable? After all, the ANS ratings are intended to be predictive. And while I apologize for speaking on behalf of Brian Burke, I think he would say something like “On average, a team that is 7-6 with an outstanding turnover margin is not a very good team.” In that light, having them 24th makes sense.
But, a good turnover margin can actually hurt a team from winning the yards battle. Dallas has returned five turnovers for touchdowns this year; add in an 86-yard punt return TD by Dwayne Harris against Washington, and that’s six possessions the offense has lost. Meanwhile, Cowboys opponents haven’t lost any possessions this year: the only return touchdown allowed by Dallas came on the opening kickoff on Thanksgiving, when the Raiders returned a Dallas fumble for a touchdown (which didn’t rob the Raiders of a possession).
According to Football Outsiders, Dallas has 143 offensive drives and faced 150 drives on defense. Still, accounting for that doesn’t bridge the gap too much — on a per drive basis, the Cowboys are only at -7.4 yards per drive, the 31st-worst mark in the league.
We all know Dallas has struggled on defense, and the numbers back that up: the Cowboys rank 32nd in yards per drive allowed and drive success rate allowed, while ranking 28th in points allowed per drive. The offense is where the new confusing statistic lies: Dallas ranks just 18th in yards per drive but 6th in points per drive.
2) Why is the Dallas offense so efficient?
The Cowboys have an incredible 70.7% red zone success rate (#2 in the NFL behind Denver); the team is also 3rd in scoring touchdowns in goal-to-go situations (81.5%). Dallas is third in touchdowns per drive (behind only Denver and New Orleans) and 2nd in turnovers per drive (behind the Saints), which would make you think this is an elite offense; on the other hand, the Cowboys have gone 3-and-out on 24.5% of all drives, which is below the league average mark of 23.5%. Another factor to consider: Dallas is 4th in average starting field position, which tends to slightly depress the number of yards a team gains.
So what’s the conclusion? Yes, the Cowboys rank 18th in yards per drive, but that ignores the fact that the team is excellent in the red zone, rarely turns the ball over, and usually gets pretty good field position to start drives. That leads to a high-scoring offense. The counterargument: Yes, Dallas ranks 6th in points per drive, but that is based on being very successful over a short sample (the red zone) and avoiding bad random plays (turnovers), and getting a boost (in terms of field position) out of the team’s control.
Dallas is tied with Seattle for third in points scored this season. Some of that is due to the six non-offensive touchdowns (remove those, and Dallas is 8th in points scored), and some of that is due to the excellent success in the red zone. FO ranks Dallas’ offense 8th, while ANS puts them 16th, but what’s really interesting is that Dallas ranks in the top 3 in both passing touchdowns and passing interceptions while ranking 16th in Net Yards per Attempt.
That’s pretty unusual. Only two teams in the last 25 years have ranked in the top five in both TD rate and INT rate while ranking outside the top 15 in NY/A. One was the fluky 2010 Chiefs, when Matt Cassel had 27 touchdowns and just 7 interceptions but averaged just 6.2 NY/A. The other was in 2002, with a combination of Donovan McNabb, A.J. Feeley, and an aversion to running near the goal line (McNabb’s aversion to throwing interceptions is well-documented). A couple of Aaron Rodgers Packers teams come close to pulling off this feat (2009, 2012), but the reason for those years showing up is that Rodgers led the league in sacks both seasons, depressing his NY/A (him showing up at the top of the TD and INT lists is hardly surprising). Romo’s sack rate is actually above average this season, so that explanation wouldn’t follow. The more likely explanation is that the Cowboys have been a bit lucky when it comes to TD rate and INT rate, which is far more sensitive to random plays than NY/A.
My takeaway on the offense is that it’s probably closer to average than you might think. Despite the glitz and glamour of Romo, Dez Bryant, and Jason Witten, this is not a top-five offense. On the other hand, I wouldn’t put much stock in the fact Cowboys rank only 22nd in yards on offense, as (1) they rank 18th in yards per drive on offense, (2) they don’t turn the ball over, and (3) they score touchdowns. That sounds like a top-12 offense to me. Just not a top-five one.
3) Are there any extenuating factors to put the Dallas defense in a better light?
As it turns out, not really. In fact, the Cowboys defense has been a bit lucky. Dallas has recovered 80% of all opponent fumbles this year, the highest rate in the league. And that’s not just a rate stat: the Cowboys have recovered 12 fumbles, tied for second in the league, despite forcing just 15 fumbles. Dallas’s defense ranks 2nd in the NFL in percentage of drives ended with a fumble and 7th in percentage of drives ended in a turnover.
The fact that Dallas’ defense ranks “only” 28th in points allowed per drive is in part due to this fumble luck. Another reason: Cowboys opponents average starting field position is just the 26-yard line, the 8th lowest mark in the league. Sadly, Dallas ranking 28th in points allowed per drive probably overstates how good the defense has been (the team also ranks 16th in goal-to-go defense and 26th in red zone defense, otherwise they’d probably be last in points allowed per drive).
Dallas ranks 31st in yards per carry allowed and 28th in net yards per attempt allowed. Now the Cowboys historically bad ranking in raw yards allowed probably overstates things a bit — I’m not sure Atlanta or Washington have better defenses than Dallas, but opponents simply take their feet off the gas sooner against those teams. After all, the Cowboys have faced the 3rd most pass attempts in the NFL, which tends to inflate the yards allowed figure. But make no mistake, this is a horrible, bottom-3 defense.
Side not: some of the struggles on defense could be mitigated by strength of schedule, as the Cowboys have faced a slew of good offenses. But because the Cowboys have faced a league-average SOS according to both PFR and FO, any gains we give to the defense would have to be offset by the offense facing an easier-than-average schedule.
4) Cowboys special teams
It’s worth pointing out that Dallas ranks 4th in KO return average and 6th in PR average, while ranking 7th in KO return average allowed and 14th in PR average allowed. Dan Bailey has had a strong year, with just two missed kicks: a 35-yarder in a blowout against the Rams and a 56-yarder against San Diego. He’s made 12 straight since then, and is 4/5 on the year from over 50. The Dallas special teams units have been very good, and that’s part of the reason the team has a 7-6 record despite the struggling defense.
Dallas isn’t the worst team in the league, as the yardage margin would indicate. But the defense is legitimately terrible, while the offense is good but not great. There have been three main reasons the Cowboys are 7-6 despite the yardage struggles: 1) an excellent red zone offense; 2) excellent turnover margin; and 3) very good special teams. There are many reasons looking at yards is misleading: for example, the offense ranks 22nd in yards because it ranks last in plays run. On a per-play basis, Dallas is 16th in passing and 9th in rushing. But that’s not good enough to offset the defense.
But in my view, the Cowboys are probably lucky to be 7-6. While they are closer to a 7-6 team than the 32nd-rankd team, this isn’t a case where we can just say that the yards don’t tell the story. Dallas is 27th in Net Yards per Pass differential, which is probably the number one basic team metric. With a 6.14 NY/A average, Romo is a full net yard per attempt below his career average from before this season. The Cowboys have saved by turnover margin and red zone performance while struggling on a per-play basis; that’s simply not as sustainable as other metrics.