The 2011 NFL season offered several interesting lessons on how different aspects of performance and planning affect an NFL franchise. Since those that do not learn from history are doomed to repeat their failure, it is already time to eliminate the Eagles from serious Super Bowl contention.
Just kidding...well, sort of...
The ability to pass the ball is paramount to success
In 2011, the top five teams in passing yards during the regular season finished with a combined 60-20 win-loss record. That .750 winning ratio was only surpassed by one team not in the top five in passing yardage: the San Francisco 49ers. The two Super Bowl participants were in the top five in passing yardage (New England was ranked 2nd in the NFL, while New York was rated 5th).
Stopping the opposing quarterback during the regular season is inconsequential if the team has an elite passing offense. The Patriots and Giants were ranked 31st and 29th respectively in opposing passing yardage during the 2011 season. Green Bay and New Orleans were rated 32nd and 30th respectively, while the Packers and Saints were 1st and 3rd in offensive passing yards per game. The only other team in the top five in passing yards, Detroit, finished 22nd on the defensive end (just above the Dallas pass defense).
Therefore, the upgrades that the Cowboys made in the secondary may have less impact than any changes made to the offense permitting Tony Romo to lead a top five passing offense. The loss of Laurent Robinson may have more impact than the additions of Carr, Claiborne, and the development of Church.
On defense, it's not about pressure or yardage, but rather getting to the ball
The statement that adding Carr and Claiborne will not offset the loss of Robinson is not consistent with what the statistics show in regards to passes defensed. Despite having the 29th ranked pass defense in regards to yardage, the Giants were tied for 8th in passes defensed during the 2011 regular season.
As with offensive passing yardage, the top five teams in passes defensed all made the playoffs. The combined regular season won-loss record of those teams was an outstanding 63-17, for a winning ratio of .788. Only the 13-3 Patriots surpassed that winning ratio and failed to rank in the top five (rated 27th) in passes defensed.
Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne have demonstrated a knack for getting their hands on passes thus far in the preseason. Carr had 15 passes defensed in 2011, placing him in a tie for the 16th best total in the NFL. By comparison, the top Dallas defensive back last season (Terence Newman) had 8 passes defensed, and was tied for 81st in the league.
The Cowboys were ranked 30th in passes defensed during the last regular season. Dallas accumulated 57 passes defensed. For comparison, the Ravens led the league in passes defensed with 107 in 2011.
There were several instances of this occurring last season. Jim Harbaugh took over a 6-10 49ers team and led them to the NFC Championship game after going 13-3 in the regular season. Under John Fox, the Denver Broncos exceeded expectations by winning a playoff game after winning the AFC West. The previous season, the Broncos had the second overall pick in the NFL Draft after winning just four games.
But assistant coaches also matter. Andy Reid chose to make the unprecedented move of having an offensive line coach take over the Eagles defense in 2011. Despite making significant upgrades in regards to personnel during the offseason, Philadelphia finished 8-8 in 2011 after going 10-6 and winning the division in 2010.
This season, the Cowboys enlisted the services of Henderson (to coach the secondary) and Callahan (to serve as the offensive line coach and to assist in coordinating the offense). So far in the preseason, a banged-up offensive line has been up and down, but good enough for Romo to fling the ball downfield. The line has shown marked improvement over the last three preseason games.
The secondary has been the most pleasant surprise of the preseason to date. Carr, Claiborne, Church and Sensabaugh have been solid and occasionally spectacular in coverage.
But even great coaching cannot overcome a lack of talent
Last season, the Cowboys brought in a new defensive coordinator, a new linebackers coach, and a new wide receivers coach. The underlying thought was that better coaching would lead to a better performance on the field. While the gains were modest, improving from 6-10 to 8-8, the Cowboys were still watching the playoffs from home.
This season, Dallas changed its offensive line coach and secondary coach, but made significant upgrades in personnel on the field as well. The Cowboys added players through the draft, as well as through free agency. Through better coaching, the organization also began to develop players from within the team.
On the other hand, Chicago is poised for a significant improvement due to the addition of Brandon Marshall and Jeremy Bates (quarterback coach) to supplement Jay Cutler. Indianapolis has added a great quarterback in Andrew Luck, and Seattle has added a pair of signal callers that should make them a playoff team.
So which teams have made significant improvements?
Interesting storylines for 2012 will include the absence of a Super Bowl coach in New Orleans and the effect on the Saints. Tampa Bay (10-6), Indianapolis (10-6), and Oakland (8-8) all have new coaches and had non-losing records in 2010, before having disappointing seasons in 2011.
Analyzing some of last season's NFC playoff teams, it is apparent that San Francisco has added Randy Moss to help open up the 49ers passing game. Detroit may have developed a young receiver to accompany Megatron, but their secondary is still left wanting. New Orleans and New York lost a receiver, and have not made any significant improvements to their secondary. Green Bay has also failed to make a significant upgrade to its secondary. Atlanta has not made any additions to the secondary or the receiving corp, but have added a great defensive coordinator in Mike Nolan (although he may be running a 4-3 base defense instead of his customary 3-4 specialty).
Of course, the Dallas Cowboys lost Robinson, but have apparently made significant improvements to the secondary and have Tony Romo returning after having a career best season in 2011. Jason Garrett has adjusted his coaching staff accordingly, positioning the Cowboys for a playoff run.
The Cowboys were the only team to just miss the playoffs in the NFC last season that made significant changes to personnel in the secondary, return a top 10 quarterback, and make perceived improvements to the coaching staff. That should more than offset the loss of a third receiver.