2013 Team Preview: Dallas Cowboys

Dallas Cowboys

  • 2012 Record: 8-8 (3rd in NFC East)
  • 2012 Point Differential: -24 (19th out of 32)
  • 2012 Strength of Schedule (per PFR’s SRS system): +1.8 (t-4th)
  • 2012 Predictive Yards per Play (offense): 5.44 (10th)
  • 2012 Predictive Yards per Play (defense): 5.17 (21st)
  • 2011 Predictive Yards per Play (offense): 5.45 (10th)
  • 2011 Predictive Yards per Play (defense): 4.98 (21st)

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Offensive Projection: 451.46 points

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Defensive Projection: 398.57 points

One of the most surprising projections Predictive Yards per Play is spitting out for this season – and, coincidentally, one of the projections I disagree with the most – is its opinion that the Cowboys will win the NFC East this year. At least, it’s surprising to me. It probably shouldn’t be. The NFC East, in the midst of a downturn, is probably now the weakest division in the conference and the Cowboys have played in winner-take-all contests for the division in Week 17 each of the past two years. My question to all you readers out there, though, is this: who among you actually expected them to win those games?

They’ve been feared for the vast majority of their 53 seasons in the NFL, but as they now begin preparations for their 54th there is no bigger laughingstock in the NFL right now than the Dallas Cowboys. Obviously, there are numerous teams that have posted worse records over the past few years, but none of them inspire the zealous schadenfreude an 8-8 Cowboys team creates in the hearts of Americans. Ask yourself this: did watching the Chiefs bumble their way to the first overall pick last year inspire deep belly laughs from the vast interior of your omentum? What about the Jaguars? Or did seeing the Bills and Browns miss the playoffs for the 37th year in a row cause you to do anything other than shake your head sadly and mumble, “Those poor schmucks?”

If you’re a normal NFL fan, the answers to those three questions are probably , in order, “No, that team was depressing as crap to watch,” “Who cares? Why does Jacksonville even have a team still?” and “Of course not, I have a soul!” Teams that are truly terrible year after year don’t usually register much emotion with general NFL fandom at large. You’ll half pay attention to what the Titans are doing until Halloween when they’re 2-6 and you see a highlight of Jake Locker stepping out of his own end zone for a safety. “Jiminy Christmas, that guy still sucks,” you’ll say to yourself while chewing through another barbecue wing. And then you’ll stop paying attention to that team until the following September.

A mediocre Cowboys team, on the other hand, is the bungling gift that keeps on giving and the past two editions of this team couldn’t have provided a better cast for the NFL’s biggest tragicomedy of errors. It’s a team of high-profile players at the skill and glamour positions so you can easily remember their names whenever they screw up. They have obvious talent that they show often enough to give their fans hope that maybe this really is the year DeMarco Murray stays healthy for the entire season and runs for 2,000 yards (when in actuality he’ll develop turf toe in Week 2 and miss eight games as a result).

Their owner’s the smartest business mind in the league and yet somehow dumb enough to think that his business successes make him qualified to run the team’s football operations, too. Their stadium’s the biggest, shiniest and most ostentatious in the country, which makes it all the more humorous when the Cowboys get blown out at home in front of 100,000 people pretending the stadium is a library (Dallas’s home record since moving to Cowboys Stadium? A thoroughly remarkable 18-15). Their coach went to Princeton but doesn’t know when to use his timeouts at the end of games. Their quarterback is excellent 90% of the time and terrible 10% of the time – luckily, that 10% usually occurs in the biggest moments of the highest-profile games.

In short: the Cowboys are just good enough to stay relevant throughout the year and contend for the playoffs…and then get their hopes brutally crushed in the final game of the year. And the best part is, Jerry Jones always thinks they’re just one piece away from the Super Bowl. Just one more receiver, just a shutdown cornerback, just a different defensive coordinator – every August, Jerry Jones thinks he’s plugged the leak in the Cowboys’ ceiling when the real issue is with the team’s foundation.

Truthfully, if the Cowboys were able to field their preferred starting lineup they penciled in at the beginning of training camp, this would be a very tough team to beat instead just an occasionally tough team to beat. Dallas does have very good-to-great players stashed at just about every position except safety and anywhere on the offensive line. But, as you may have heard recently, football is a very violent sport and players get hurt. Every team suffers injuries and it’s often the ones who make adequate backup plans who wind up playing in January.

That’s the downside of Jones’ continuous “one player away” strategy – constantly chasing star players at the expense of acquiring and developing quality backups means the team has a comical lack of depth behind each of its starting positions except quarterback (consider this my yearly plea to the NFL at large to find Kyle Orton a starting job somewhere again). And Jones’ constant fascination with splashy skill position players while failing to think about who blocks for those skill position players has led to a gradual decline – and then last season, a full-on collapse – in the team’s offensive line. It’s a relative miracle Tony Romo started all 16 games and only got sacked 36 times, considering the amount of hits he took from mediocre pass rushes such as the Buccaneers.

Frankly, despite being the scapegoat for virtually all of the team’s misfortunes, it’s tough to imagine how far the Cowboys would have fallen without Romo last year. His offensive line hung him out to dry, he only had two receivers he could really trust (Jason Witten and Dez Bryant), his coach and play-caller Jason Garrett was loathe to run to combination routes that would, you know, actually get receivers open by some other way than natural talent and his running game was less than useless whenever DeMarco Murray was hurt (which was often). Yeah, he didn’t play well in the do-or-die finale against the Redskins. But until that point, Romo had done a pretty remarkable job of propping up a very flawed offense.

Predictive Yards per Play thinks Romo will be able to make up for the rest of the team’s defects again in 2013. – it looks at Romo’s career 64.7% completion percentage and, for right or wrong, sees a quarterback more likely to consistently produce first downs than Eli Manning or Robert Griffin III. For that reason – and almost that reason alone – Predictive Yards per Play sees the Cowboys slightly pulling away from an NFC East field that it otherwise views as being filled .500-quality teams.

At some point soon, though, Romo (who turned 33 in April) will start to decline. And when that day comes, all the years of empty mid-to-late round drafting and ignoring the offensive line will cause the Cowboys to plummet and plummet quickly. Jason Witten turned 31 in May and could hardly move last year as it was. DeMarcus Ware turned 31 on July 31st and was the second-best outside linebacker on his own team last year – his best days are probably behind him. The team Bill Parcells built in the middle part of last decade is generally dropping off one by one until only a few scraggly standbys remain. Once they move on, the Cowboys will once again be entirely comprised of players Jerry Jones handpicked himself. And that thought should scare the living snot out of any Cowboys fan.

Offense

PY/P 2011-12 Weighted Avg. 2012 Consistency Index Ball Control % Projected Strength of Schedule Projected Points Scored
5.441709 5.15 1.015479 -0.26239 451.4551

2012 key contributors who moved on in the offseason: RB Felix Jones, WR Kevin Ogletree, TE John Phillips

Notable 2013 offseason additions: WR Terrance Williams, TE Gavin Escobar, C Travis Frederick

Alright, I’m actually going to defend Jerry Jones here in a second, so enjoy this moment while it lasts: the Cowboys weren’t able to do much in free agency for the second year in a row because of the cap penalties they (along with the Redskins) received from the NFL for “spending too much money” in the NFL’s uncapped 2010 year. But why would a franchise be penalized for having too high a payroll in a year where the size of the payroll didn’t matter? Unless there was a secret collusion agreement among the owners not to go over an agreed-upon figure for team salaries? Nah, that couldn’t be it. Anyway, Jerry got screwed there and for the second offseason in a row, all Dallas could really do in free agency was sit on their hands. Which, given Jerry’s free agent signings, may not have been the worst thing in the world…The Cowboys were allowed to draft players, though, and Jerry made arguably the most ridiculed pick of the first round when he traded down towards the end of the first round to pick Wisconsin center Travis Frederick, who had been thought of as a third-round talent at best. Picking for need over talent always works out in the end, though! Escobar’s a receiving tight end drafted in the second round to give Romo another option in the middle of the field and Williams led the NCAA FBS in receiving yards last year at Baylor (without RGIII as his quarterback).

Defense

PY/P 2011-12 Weighted Avg. 2012 Consistency Index Ball Control % Projected Strength of Schedule Projected Points Allowed
5.093727 -1.875 0.984521 1.463638 398.5698

2012 key contributors who moved on in the offseason: DE Kenyon Coleman, DE Marcus Spears, ILB Dan Connor, CB Mike Jenkins, S Gerald Sensabaugh

Notable 2013 offseason additions: OLB Justin Durant, S Will Allen, S J.J. Wilcox

First off, just take a gander at that picture above. Jeez, Monte Kiffin looks three years older than Moses, doesn’t he? Ah, but the former great Tampa Bay defensive coordinator was excavated from his coordinating gig at USC in the offseason to replace Rob Ryan (since apparently it’s more fun to work under Jerry Jones than your own son). In a reversal from what’s happening with most other teams in the league, Kiffin is actually switching the Cowboys scheme from the 3-4 they’ve run since Bill Parcells took over in 2003 back to a 4-3 – but not the Cover-Two version of the 4-3 that Kiffin popularized with Tony Dungy back in Tampa. It looks like Kiffin wants to marry the old generate-a-pass-rush-with-the-front-four tenets of that defense with the same press man coverages on the outside that Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne were using last year. In other words, he kind of wants the Cowboys defense to look like Seattle’s defense from last year. The jury’s still out, though, on whether Carr and (especially) Claiborne can be as effective as Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner were last year and the jury’s definitely still out on whether or not DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer should really start turning into really light defensive ends this late into their careers. Again, because of the team’s cap penalties, though, Dallas didn’t have much money to toss around in the offseason and the result is that most of the starter’s from last year’s 3-4 defense will be force-fit into starting in this year’s 4-3 defense. Which probably won’t be awkward, at all.

1 September 8 New York Giants
2 September 15 @ Kansas City Chiefs
3 September 22 St. Louis Rams
4 September 29 @ San Diego Chargers
5 October 6 Denver Broncos
6 October 13 Washington Redskins
7 October 20 @ Philadelphia Eagles
8 October 27 @ Detroit Lions
9 November 3 Minnesota Vikings
10 November 10 @ New Orleans Saints
11 Bye Week
12 November 24 @ New York Giants
13 November 28 Oakland Raiders
14 December 9 @ Chicago Bears
15 December 15 Green Bay Packers
16 December 22 @ Washington Redskins
17 December 29 Philadelphia Eagles

2013 Projected Strength of Schedule: +1.20 points per game harder than average (8th-toughest)

Dan Bailey made all of his field goals inside 50 yards last year but got the least distance on kickoffs out of any player in the league. Dez Bryant always draws a lot of “oohs” and “aahs” when he gets sent out to return punts, but he only averaged 5.5 yards per return on the few he did field last year. Dwayne Harris, on the other hand, averaged over 16 yards per return and scored a touchdown, so you might as well just stick him back there all the time and save Dez for offense…The Cowboys’ schedule rates as the eighth-toughest not because there’s an abundance of elite teams on the docket (you could make the argument that Denver and Green Bay are their only scheduled opponents who fit that profile) but more because there’s not a whole lot of breather weeks. Outside of some of their AFC West opponents, every one of their games looks like it’ll involve a respectable foe.

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Wins Projection: 9.4 Wins (1st in NFC East)

Romo saves an otherwise declining team from the edge of oblivion and it’s finally the Cowboys’ turn again to sit atop the mediocre NFC East.

2013 Subjective Prediction: 6-10 (4th in NFC East)

Turns out Jerry once again failed to pick a winner.

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