Football Outsiders Project Yet Another Disappointing Season For Cowboys

"Football Outsiders. Ever heard of these guys?"

Our good friends FootballOutsiders.com (FO) published their annual Football Outsiders Almanac yesterday. It is a veritable treasure trove of football information spread out over 574 pages and a must-read for the statistically inclined.

Predictable as clockwork, the one number out of the 574-page tome that immediately makes the headlines every year are the FO Mean Win Projections for every one of the 32 teams in the NFL in 2012. Underlying their projections are some complicated calculations based on the DVOA for offense, defense, and special teams as well as a number of different factors such as recent draft history, coaching experience, injury history, previous years DVOA and other variables.

And as you can easily tell from the title of this post, the FO algorithm has once again been unkind to the Cowboys this year. FO project 7.5 mean wins for the Cowboys, and have the Cowboys again finishing third in the NFC East behind the first place Eagles, second place Giants and ahead of the fourth place Redskins.

The 2012 NFC East standings based on FO's mean projected wins after the jump.

[Update: I just learned that FO are making the Dallas Cowboys section the free sample this year. So go here to download the full version of what FO wrote: www.footballoutsiders.com/files/DAL sample.pdf]

The easiest thing to do obviously would be to start bashing FO for not sharing our collective optimism about the Cowboys' potential this season. But that's not what we're going to do here. Last year, FO correctly predicted four out of eight division winners and eight out of twelve playoff participants. They also predicted a 7.7 win season for the 2011 Cowboys.

That's scary. Of course, it's much less scary when you look at how much they missed on some other teams. But the least we should do is at least look at why they think the Cowboys won't improve over last season. Before we go there though, let's first look at what FO projected last year for the NFC East, and how close they ended up being.

2011 NFC East Projections and Standings
Team Projected Wins by FO Actual Wins
Giants
8.2 9
Eagles
11.7 8
Cowboys
7.7 8
Redskins 5.6 5

Overall, it looks like FO were fairly close on the three teams that have won Super Bowls in the past, while missing badly on the Eagles. No point in dwelling on the past too much, on to FO's projections for this season:

2012 NFC East Projections
Team Projected Wins by FO
Eagles
8.6
Giants
8.3
Cowboys
7.5
Redskins 6.8

The first thing that stands out here is that FO predict the NFC east to be a lot tighter this year than they expected it to be last year. The difference in projected wins between the Cowboys and Eagles is one game, marginal considering the W/L record is based on only 16 games and is therefore highly susceptible to a couple of random bounces of the ball or badly timed injuries.

Also, as last year's FO Almanac plainly stated, FO have been "famously pessimistic" about the Cowboys in the past. And that hasn't changed much this year. The Cowboys are chastised for trading up to get Claiborne, the old and tired "they haven't drafted a lineman high since forever" meme pops up, and they even manage to slip in an oblique Roy Williams reference to prove why the Cowboys will underachieve in 2012.

With that out of the way, FO do address what they perceive to be the two key areas of concern, and believe it or not, they consider the secondary to be the first weakness:

Brandon Carr is considered a wise signing, but is damned with faint praise as a "clear upgrade over what Dallas had last season", with the caveat that he's never been the top corner on his team before. Morris Claiborne is projected with a subpar performance because other first round-picks have also disappointed in the past, which leads FO to conclude that he'll "still be no better than the subpar veterans he is replacing."

The second weakness per FO is the Cowboys O-line, specifically its inability to win in short yardage situations:

Dallas had a lot of trouble rushing in key situations, ranking 31st in DVOA on third down and 31st in the red zone. The real problem, though, was in short yardage, and it wasn’t just rushing. On third or fourth down with 1 or 2 yards to go, the Cowboys’ DVOA was -47.5%. Dallas was only the 18th team since 1991 to dip below -40% in this situation.

FO consider the additions of Livings and Bernadeau a "net loss" and are not optimistic about the line. They also bring up Witten's age and the uncertainty over the 3rd wide receiver spot as further potential stumbling blocks for the Cowboys this year.

Okay, I can follow some of the logic here, but I find it hard to understand how the Cowboys secondary can be viewed as a weakness. But maybe that's just me, because I also don't understand how a team could lose its All Pro left tackle for the season and get away with a snarky comment like this:

Let’s not overreact to the Peters injury and expect the Eagles to suddenly field a below-average offense. You don’t want to lose your best lineman, but this isn’t EAGLES HAZ LOST THEIR LEFT TACKLE ZOMG!

Then again, where FO wrote last year about being "famously pessimistic" about the Cowboys, this year they acknowledge they are "known for our rosy Philadelphia forecasts."

On the plus side, FO see the Cowboys' front seven as a particular strength, and see the team stacked at the offensive skill positions. In summary, they think

The Cowboys are a talented but flawed bunch this year, with a stacked schedule that includes not only two games each against the Giants and Eagles, but also contests with the powerhouses of the AFC North and NFC South. It will probably be too much for this team to overcome.

Overall, I'm a lot more optimistic about the Cowboys' season than FO evidently are. And it's not like there aren't enough alternative takes on the 2012 season being published right now. NFL.com's Adam Rank for example thinks the Cowboys will win the division:

The Dallas Cowboys would have won the NFC East last season if Miles Austin and Tony Romo could have connected on a critical third-down play late in the fourth quarter of a Week 14 home loss to the Giants. That game was part of a 1-5 fade down the stretch. This year, though, the team will close with five home games out of the final seven, a favorable set-up that should help propel the Cowboys to the postseason. No wild card for the Giants, though, as three teams from the NFC North will make it.

So there you have it. Two sources. Two completely different takes on the Cowboys.

What's your take?

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