The Cowboys defense was bad again in 2011. But with everyone focusing on the draft a debate has emerged whether draft picks and free agent priority should be given to the offense or the defense. A common argument in favor of ignoring the defense is that the 2011 playoff teams' defenses are bad and win based on their elite offenses.
It's clear cut, right? The Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots rank 32nd and 31st respectively in total defense. All NFL analysts say this and it's true, they give up the most yards on defense of any team in the NFL. But is this the whole story
Firstly, it's important to understand that the most important part of playoff football in the past few years has been passing the ball and stopping the pass. Patriots, Saints, Green Bay, Indianapolis, New York, Pittsburgh the teams that were in the Superbowl and won the Superbowl were there because of their abilities to do some combination of passing the ball and stopping the pass.
But that fact doesn't change anything, does it? We just stated that Green Bay and New England give up the most yards to opposing defenses so they are bad against the pass. Defense still doesn't matter.
Defense as measured by the NFL and the analysts on TV is measured in how many yards are given up. But is this how we judge a passing attack and how we judge quarterbacks? No, there's a lot more to judging quarterbacks than just how many yards they threw for. There's touchdowns, interceptions, and completion percentage all of which are rolled into the quarterback rating.
So what happens when we include that data on defenses? Like a trip through the looking glass the perspectives change. When you weight yards, completion percentage, touchdowns, and interceptions the Patriots pass defense is merely average. QBs had the 20th highest QB rating against the Patriots. Outweighing all the yards given up is the fact that the Patriots were even in TDs and interceptions allowing 26 TDs to 23 interceptions.
The Green Bay Packers, the 31st ranked defense by yards, was actually in the top-10 in opposing QB rating. The Packers had the 9th lowest QB rating given up to opposing quarterbacks. Why? Because despite allowing 29 TDs they turned the ball over a staggering 31 times.
In fact, the Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots were #1 and #2 in the league in creating interceptions.
The impact of turnovers is extreme in the NFL. It is the 1 statistic that most closely aligns with winning in the NFL. If you win the turnover battle even by 1 turnover your team is over 75% likely to win the game.
So it is not that Green Bay and New England have bad defenses buoyed by their offenses. They actually have good to great defenses. Their defenses create turnovers which lead to the offense scoring even more points. The casual analysis you hear from 40-year-old players merely wanting to spend 5 minutes on NFL.com for "research", walk onto a set, and collect a paycheck may miss these facts but winning coaches like Bellicheck and McCarthy do not.
So where do the Cowboys stack up in defensive passer rating? In that terrible 2010 Wade Phillips season the Cowboys ranked 29th in defensive passer rating. In 2011 with Ware casing twice as many sacks, Rob Ryan upgrading the scheme, and the offense performing better than the previous year the result was - 25th. Ouch, the team only increased 4 places in ranking, remaining at the bottom 1/4th of the league.
The facts are that if you want post-season success you need a defense that can defend the pass, either by limiting passing yards or by causing turnovers. The Dallas Cowboys for all the changes made in 2011 were no better than the terrible 2010 team at defending the pass. Ware can't do any better than he did this year, Rob Ryan can't come up with a better scheme than the one he had this year. So the thing that needs to change are the players on the defense responsible for stopping opposing quarterbacks.
If the Dallas Cowboys want to play on weekends like this next season they need to upgrade their players in order to lower the effectiveness of opposing quarterbacks. If we see the same results on defense next year it will not matter how well the offense plays, the Cowboys will not be in the NFC championship game.