In the NFL, offenses and defenses have traditionally been ranked by the number of yards and points gained or allowed. And while those measures keep things nice and simple, they can also be quite misleading, as yardage alone doesn't tell you very much by itself.
Take the top ten offensive teams through Week 4 as measured by total yards: Only three of those ten teams have a winning record. Conversely, up until yesterday the Cardinals were ranked 29th in total offensive yards, but still sported a 4-0 record.
And in a similar vein, the team ranked 31st in points per game, our very own Dallas Cowboys (16.2 pts/game) have the same record as the highest scoring team in the league (Patriots, 33.5 pts/game). And only three teams in the league have a better W/L record than the third worst scoring team (Eagles, 16.5 pts/game).
So today, instead of looking at 'how much' yet again, we'll look at how efficient thehave been through four weeks on both sides of the ball. 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 2012 Cowboys and look at three different groups of stats: Field position, drive efficiency and scoring efficiency.
1. Field Position
Quite often when analyzing stats, the focus is on total offense, total defense, individual player stats and other stats that can easily become irrelevant if field position is a big factor in a game.
According to FootballOutsiders.com (FO), the Cowboys held opponents to an average starting position of 28.5 per drive this year, which ranks the Cowboys 23rd in the league. Unfortunately, the Cowboys' own starting position per drive was only 25.7, also ranked 23rd.
To illustrate the importance of these stats, let's take the 4-0 Falcons: After four weeks, their offense is ranked second in starting field position (32.1) and their defense is ranked first in starting field position allowed (22.2):
That's a differential of 9.9 yards per drive. Over their 43 drives that differential would add up to a field position advantage (or "hidden yardage") of 425 (!!!) yards in four games. The Cowboys have a differential of -2.8 yards. Over their 41 offensive drives, that would add up to -115 over four games, or a 540-yard difference between the Falcons and the Cowboys. Wouldn't you want an extra 135 yards in field position per game?
There are two ways to improve your starting field position: Better returns and more takeaways. The Cowboys need to work on both.
2. Drive Efficiency
On offense, the Cowboys are moving the ball at a pretty decent clip of 5.9 yards per play (8th best in the league), but their 68.8% Drive Success Rate (measures the percentage of down series that result in a first down or touchdown) is ranked a lowly 20th in the league.
That happens when you have the seventh most dropped passes (10), the third most giveaways (11), and the fourth most penalties (34) that put you in 3rd and long situations.
The picture looks a little more rosy on defense. The Cowboys defense allowed only 4.9 yards per play so far (6th best in the league), but a middling 36% third down conversion rate (ranked 15th) results in a defensive Drive Success Rate of 69%, which is just slightly better than average (13th best ). Of course, when your offense creates short fields for the opponent, it gets more difficult to stop an opposing drive, but the defense could stand to see some improvement on third downs, and they need to create more takeaways than the miserly four they've collected so far.
If the jugs machine isn't broken after the bye week, the Cowboys did something wrong.
3. Scoring Efficiency
In what has become a familiar theme for Cowboys fans, the Cowboys are ranked 16th in yards per game after four weeks, but only 31st in points per game. When you move the ball a lot but fail to score, your yards required per point scored (YPP) is bound to be high: The Cowboys rank 31st in the NFL with a 22.4 YPP.
Small consolation, only the Eagles' offense produces more empty yards (25.3 YPP) than the Cowboys offense. And both offenses have something else in common: over the first four games, they've given away the ball a lot, the Eagles 12 times (2nd most in the league), the Cowboys 11 times (3rd most).
You could assume that the Cowboys' defense, which has given up the fourth fewest yards per game in the league, would have a fairly high defensive YPP, an indication that opposing offenses have to work hard to score against that defense. Naturally, that assumption would be wrong.
The Cowboys' opponents this year did not have to move the ball very far to score. In fact, with only 12.6 yards required per point allowed, the Cowboys defense ranks a horrid 27th in the league. Of course, 21 of the 88 points the Cowboys have given up were given up on two pick sixes and a blocked punt. In fairness, the defense is better than this stat suggests.
The issue here is that so far this season, the offense has put the defense in some pretty bad situations, which brings us back to point number one and field position.
Clearly the biggest issue the Cowboys have had over the first four weeks is their propensity for offensive turnovers and their lack of defensive takeaways. The Cowboys have the second worst turnover differential in the NFL, and this needs urgent fixing.
But they also need to improve their return game (the Cowboys are ranked 28th on punt returns and 25th on kickoff returns) and need to find a way to sustain their offensive drives beyond dropped passes, penalties and 3rd downs. The job of the defense will get much easier after that.