Cowboys' Offseason Headscratcher: Forecasting Declining Players

Is The Senator's 2011 dip in production an aberration or a sign of decline?

Its July, the one month a year when scouts are on vacation. At the end of the month, the Cowboys college scouts will reconvene to attend training camp practices and preseason games before heading back out on the road to begin watching college games. The scouting staff will spend almost a month analyzing the Cowboys roster so that they have a good basis of comparison when they head out to look at both college players and other pro teams' personnel. Every time the pro personnel guys look at a given player, for example, they must ask: does this guy represent an upgrade over the man we currently have at the position?

To make these assessments, scouts not only must grade a given player's raw talent, but also must account for where he is in his career trajectory. For example, it makes no sense to bring in a vet when the organization has a young player they think is ready to break through, even if the vet is a better player right now. This is what Bill Parcells used to call a "progress stopper." For them to assess the roster accurately, scouts must ask: who is ready to take that much-anticipated "step up," earning a starting position or having a breakout year?

At the same time - and perhaps more importantly - they must anticipate which players or positions are likely to fall off, either due to age or because their play last season was an anomaly--i.e., they are probably going to regress to a more normal statistical tableau. In a recent post, BTB friend (and closet Cowboys fan) Jimmy K of Blogging the BEast fame, himself inspired by a conversation among Eagles bloggers addressed exactly this issue. One of the points Jimmy makes is that, as fans, we tally offsetting improvements while assuming all other things will remain equal.

The reason this is a "fallacy," Jimmy explains, is because NFL teams must contend with declining players; indeed, teams that fail to live up to preseason predictions often do so because their players age or suffer a statistical regression to the mean. When Dallas' personnel guys assess the team, they must take this into consideration; as fans looking forward to the upcoming season, we should as well. So, who on the Cowboys roster is most likely to suffer a decline from his 2011 performance level?

Make the jump and see the list of potential candidates for a decline...

Before we get to names, its important to reiterate that there are two primary reasons for a decline in performance: age and reversion to a statistical mean after a season with anomalously high production. During the Wade Phillips administration, we saw Marion Barber and the entire offensive line suffer precipitous declines due to age; in 2008, Felix Jones averaged 8.9 yards a carry, a ridiculous number that was impossible to sustain. In his post, which looks at all four NFC East teams, Jimmy offers one candidate from each category (age or regression) for each team. For the Cowboys, its Demarco Murray, who he says cannot match his 5.5 YPC from last season, and Jay Ratliff who, as an undersized NT on the wrong side of 30, looks ripe for a falloff.

I'm not inclined to disagree with either of these choices; however, I do think there are other players on whom the Cowboys scouts must keep a watchful eye, to look for the first signs of fall-off, and that it wold be unreasonable to expect others to match last year's success. Here in July, without the benefit of seeing these guys in camp and in preseason games, are the guys I'd be keeping my eye on:

Jason Witten: The Senator averaged a career-high 11.9 yards per catch in 2011. However, he caught the fewest balls since 2006 and looked a half-step slower than in previous years. He turned 30 in May, has nine NFL seasons under his belt, and the Cowboys' constant search for an F-back who can block has required that he participate in more "wham blocks" than any of us would like, so we must ask the inevitable question: was 2011 an off year or did it represent the beginning of a decline due to age?

Jay Ratliff: Like Witten, Ratliff is 30 (and will turn 31 at the end of August), is undersized and plays a position where the toll on the body is brutal. The eyeball test suggests that Rat isn't the same penetrating, disruptive force that he was in 2007-09. And, although likely connected to a larger defensive malaise, Ratliff's sack totals have declined each of the last three seasons. With a grand total of 2.0 in 2011, there isn't much room left for them to fall...

DeMarcus Ware: Ware's potential for decline is a matter of both age and numbers. Just before training camp, he'll turn 30, the age at which players tend to lose a step. For a speed rusher, such a loss could be devastating. Even if he maintain his supernatural quickness another season, we should expect some sort of regression from his ridiculous 2011 total of 19.5 sacks to something in the 11-15 range. There is a historical precedent at play here: Ware followed up his 20 sack 2008 season with a more pedestrian 11 quarterback bags in 2009.

Tony Romo: Like Ware, Romo's decline could come about due to a combination of age and statistical regression. Let's look at the season he had in 2011: second-highest completion percentage of his career; second-lowest interception percentage; and 8.3 adjusted yards per attempt (just behind his career best 8.4 in 2009); career highs in fourth quarter comebacks (4) and game-winning drives (4) and the highest quarterback rating of his career - and all this while suffering the most sacks (36). It will be very, very difficult for Romo to duplicate these kinds of numbers, especially given that he's at the age, 32, where NFL signal callers tend to fall off.

Dan Bailey: The guys at Football Outsiders have shown that field goal percentage is almost entirely random from season to season. In other words, no kickers who are more accurate than others over a large sample size, and good kicking seasons tend to be followed by a regression to the mean. In 2011, the Cowboys' rookie kicker nailed 86.5 % of his kicks and was a stellar 10-12 from 41-49 yards. That happens to be the exact percentage of the all-time NFL leader in field goal accuracy, the Chargers' Nate Kaeding. While Bailey could conceivably have an even better year in 2012, the likelihood is that he'll regress, if only slightly.

DeMarco Murray: Since he'll probably be the opening day starter in 2012, Murray is likely to amass more than the 897 yards he did in 2011. The question is: how may caries will it take. As has been pointed out, Murray came out of the gate like gangbusters, averaging 8.0 YPC in his first four games. In his next four, however, once the league had a little tape on him, he averaged 3.48 per. Which is more likely in 2012: that he'll perform as he did in games 1-4 or in games 5-8?

Sean Lee: in 2011, Lee led the team in tackles (69) and assists (34), as well as interceptions (4) and return yards (87), and was second in passes defensed and third in tackles for loss, with 10. I'm not suggesting that his stats will go down so much as I'm thinking the Cowboys defense won't need to be such a one-man show in 2012. If the other ten guys pick up some of the slack, Lee could have less impressive stats for a better defense.

Sean Lissemore: Lissy established himself as a force to be reckoned with in the return game, averaging a whopping 38 yards per return (admittedly, he only had one return). I think it highly unlikely that he'll be able to duplicate that feat in 2012, so a regression to the mean is in order.

Although it isn't exactly pleasurable to engage in this unsavory exercise, thus predicting your favorite players' imminent demise, good organizations do this in a rigorous fashion. The key is to take a cold, hard, unsentimental look at your team's personnel, always watching for the slightest hint of the decline that is sure to come. By being prepared for it, a team can make provisions for replacements, etc. Bill Walsh's great 49ers teams, for example, were notorious for their belief that it was better to get rid of a player one year too early rather than one year too late (thus getting rid of players like Ronnie Lott and Roger Craig when they still had tread on their tires) something the Cowboys have really struggled with in recent years. Hopefully, last summer's offensive line purge represents a step in a new, more "Walshian" direction.

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