Most season reviews you've read in this oooh sssooo sssslow offseason probably read something like this: "This offense scored this many touchdowns, that receiver had so many yards, this RB ran for even more yards, that team allowed so-and-so many points, etc". Today, instead of looking at 'how much' yet again, we'll look at how efficient the Cowboys were relative to other teams, on both sides of the ball. And we hand out a scorecard.
|"||I think the biggest thing is being efficient, particularly on early downs, and continue to stay in some reasonable down-and-distance situations where you can run your offense."|
|— Jason Garrett, foxsports.com|
Traditionally, efficiency has been judged by yards and points gained or allowed, but those numbers can be misleading, as yardage alone doesn't mean a lot.
The 2008 Steelers' offense finished 22nd in yards, but ended up 12-4 and won the Super Bowl. The Texans offense ranked fourth in yards last year, yet the Texans were not one of the 12 teams to make the playoffs. The Jets ranked an impressive No. 1 in yards allowed after week 15, yet had only managed a very unimpressive 7-7 record and Rex Ryan famously proclaimed them out of the playoffs - only to be then given a free ticket to the playoffs by the Bengals and Colts.
Team efficiency can't be judged with just one stat, so here's where we take a deeper dive into the offensive and defensive efficiency of the 2009 Cowboys and look at three different groups of stats: Field position, drive efficiency and scoring efficiency.
There is a school of thought that argues that the only efficiency stat you'll ever need is points scored. If you score more points than your opponent, you win the game. End of discussion.
And that is certainly a valid point of view. But stats, used properly, can help you analyze and understand why and how the points are scored. To quote BTB member Blue Eyed Devil: "After a game or a season has played out, statistics are great at determining what caused certain outcomes, what factors were most important in success or failure, how individual players performed." And that's why we'll now look at field position, drive efficiency and scoring efficiency.
A. Field Position
|"||When you back a team up, you've got a chance of being successful defensively and that's really the only stat I care about. "|
|— Joe DeCamillis, dc.com|
According to FootballOutsiders.com (FO), the Cowboys held opponents to an average starting position of 25.6 per drive last year, ranked 1st in the NFL. The low number of giveaways as well as very good special teams and kicking/punting were a big part of this.
Unfortunately, the Cowboys' starting position per drive was only 27.4, ranked 29th in the league. Duh. The Bears led the league last year with 32.3. That's a difference of 4.9 yards. Doesn't sound like all that much, and some might shrug it away. But think of it this way: Over the 173 offensive drives the Cowboys had last year, that seemingly small 4.9 yard difference in starting position per drive translates into a cool 850 yards difference over the full season. I'm sure coach Joe D has been thinking long and hard about how to get his hands on a sizable chunk of that yardage, and having Dez Bryant and AOA as additional return weapons certainly won't hurt.
Another way to improve your average starting field position is to create more takeaways, and the +2 Turnover Ratio wasn't a great help in achieving a better field position last year.
B. Drive Efficiency
|"||No matter where the other team gets the ball, you have to stop them. "|
|— Wade Philips, CBS4denver.com|
"You have to be able to get first downs to keep the football ", Tony Dungy once said. On offense, the Cowboys for the most part looked pretty sharp and marched up and down the field seemingly at will. Not only did they move the ball at a league leading 6.3 yards per play, their 72% Drive Success Rate (measures the percentage of down series that result in a first down or touchdown) is ranked a respectable 7th in the league. Now if only they'd had a 3rd down conversion rate (41%, ranked 14th) to match, there would have been no stopping the Cowboys - that is, until they entered the red zone, but more on that later.
In terms of stopping opponents' drives, Wade's unit was so-so (statistically speaking). The Cowboys defense allowed 5.2 yards per play (No. 12) and a 66% Drive Success Rate (No. 10). On the brighter side, Wade's miserly 35.0% 3rd down conversions allowed was ranked fifth in the league.
C. Scoring Efficiency
|"||I just think our efficiency down there hasn't been as good as we need it to be. [...] We haven't executed as well as we need to, and there have been some opportunities we haven't taken advantage of. We've just got to tighten it up. "|
|— Jason Garrett, mysa.com|
On offense, the Cowboys were racking up the yards like few other teams, but were they doing it efficiently? Only 35% of the Cowboys drives ended with a score, which ranks them right in the middle of the league in 14th place.
And the Cowboys had to work hard to get a score: With 17.7 yards required per point scored (YPP) the Cowboys ranked only 25th in the NFL. And once in the red zone, the Cowboys didn't find it particularly easy to score either. Only 52% of red zone possessions resulted in a TD, just good enough for 14th in the NFL. The Cardinals showed how it's done with a 70% red zone TD rate.
But as hard as the Cowboys offense had to work to score, Wade made the Cowboys opponents work even harder to score points: The Cowboy defense ranked no.1 in yards required per point allowed (Thank you, D. Buehler, M. McBriar and Special Teams), and only 25% of the Cowboys' opponents drives resulted in a score (ranked 2nd).
"Bend but don't break" is a pretty good description of the 2009 Cowboys defense - unless the other team made it into the red zone! 56% of opponent red zone possessions resulted in a TD, bad enough for No. 23 in the NFL.
Dallas Cowboys Team Efficiency Scorecard, 2009
|LOS/Drive||27.4||29||CHI (32.3)||25.6||1||- -|
||19||4||GB (16)||21||28||GB (40)|
|Yards/Play||6.3||1||- -||5.2||12||NYJ (4.2)|
|Drive Success Rate||72%||7||IND (75%)||66%||10||NYJ (59%)|
|3rd down conv.||41%||14||IND (49%)||35%||5||NYJ (32%)|
|Scoring Drives||35%||14||SD (48%)||25%||2||NYJ (21%)|
|Yards per point
||17.7||25||NO (12.7)||20.3||1||- -|
|RZ TD Efficiency
||52%||14||ARI (70%)||56%||23||WAS (39%)|
If you're still reading at this point, you're looking at the table above and wondering just what this all means: The Jets seem to have had a pretty dominant defense last year and you have the usual suspects leading some of the offensive categories, but the Cowboys seem to be all over the place. A couple of really good rankings, a couple of pretty awful rankings and a lot of stuff somewhere in between.
Back to the simplified approach to stats: "If you score more points than your opponent, you win the game". Well, we can apply the same principle here: If you're better than your opponent in a given stat, you (probably) have a higher likelihood of success. And that's what we'll do now, we'll look at the efficiency differential for each of the stats in the table above.
Take the field position stat 'Line of scrimmage (LOS) per drive'. On average, the Cowboys started their drives at 27.4 yards, which is 1.8 yards better than where their opponents started. This 1.8 yard efficiency differential ranks the Cowboys 9th in the league.
I did exactly this exercise for all the eight stat lines above and have listed the top 12 teams in the NFL in the table below, which shows the league ranking for each efficiency differential stat:
|Field Position||Drive Efficiency||Scoring Efficiency|
|Team/ NFL Rank ||LOS/ Drive||TO ratio||Yards/ Play||Drive Success |
|3rd down |
|Drive scoring |
|Yards per |
A couple of things jump out to me as I look at this table: The only team in this Top 12 Team Efficiency list that did not make the playoffs are the Steelers. In fact, the top 11 teams on this list all made the playoffs. The 17th ranked Bengals are the only playoff team not on this list.
Three teams, the Vikings, Saints and Ravens finished in the top ten in each single stat category. The Cowboys have 6 top ten finishes, and the outliers - no surprise at all - are turnover differential and red zone efficiency differential.
You do not need to lead in every statistical category to be successful, it is often enough to have a positive differential vs your opponent. Take the Saints. They allowed a decidedly below average yards per play of 5.5 and were ranked 20th in the league. Their offense recorded 6.3 yards per play, 2nd only to the Cowboys last year. But the 1.2 yards per play differential is good enough for 5th in the league.
I have yet to see a stat-based ranking that shows playoff teams in the first 11 spots like in the rankings above. I haven't checked the 2008 figures yet to see whether they would produce similar results, partly because I'm lazy and partly because I don't want to ruin what looks like a pretty convincing argument with facts.
So what do you think: Are these results a fluke or is there a method to this statistical madness?