Dallas Cowboys 2012: Going Deeper With Football Outsiders (Part I)

Say what, Football Outsiders?

A while back, Football Outsiders came out with their 2012 Almanac. As you know, we're big fans of FO here at BTB, and like to mix in their stats with our posts. So when the 2012 preview came out, we naturally read it, and as Cowboys fans, we immediately had questions.

Well, the good people at FO, mainly Vince Verhei, were kind enough to answer some of our questions. I give most of the credit for the questions below to our own OCC, who you guys know is a stats whiz. Below is Part I of our Q&A, Part 2 will be coming soon.

BTB: You were pretty close last year with your prediction of 7.7 wins for the Cowboys. How well did you do with your other predictions?

FO: Our biggest badge of honor, I guess, was predicting that Houston would win the AFC South and Indianapolis would have a losing record. We made that prediction assuming that Peyton Manning would be healthy for 16 games, so we weren't surprised to see them completely fall apart after he went down. We also saw the Chiefs falling back below .500 after they won the AFC West at 10-6. We thought the Pats, Steelers, Ravens, Falcons, Saints, and Packers would be really good, though we hardly went out on a limb with those picks. On the other hand, the Vikings and Eagles turned out much worse than we expected, and though we thought San Francisco might win the NFC West, we sure didn't seem them going 13-3.

Much more after the jump...

BTB: This year you’re actually forecasting a slightly worse record at 7.5 wins. Can you briefly explain how you arrived at that projection, and what are the Cowboys’ best- and worst-case scenarios for 2012?

FO: In a nutshell, we input about every numerical measurement for each team we can think of, from player age to roster turnover to coaching stability to draft history and on and on. Since none of those are static numbers and all represent a range of possibilities, we simulate 1,000 versions of each team, and then simulate each of those versions going through the 2012 schedule 1,000 times. The 7.5 number is what the Cowboys averaged over those one million simulated seasons. There's a wide range between best- and worst-case scenarios for Dallas. In nine percent of those seasons they ended up a Super Bowl contender (11 or more wins). In ten percent of those seasons they ended up with 4 wins or fewer. They made the playoffs 26.8 percent of the time.

BTB: I take it you’re not impressed with what the Cowboys have done to their secondary, but do you really think the Cowboys secondary won’t improve versus last year’s version?

FO: Brandon Carr is a giant upgrade over Terence Newman. Huge. One of the most significant talent upgrades in the league. The problem is everyone else. As we explain in the Dallas chapter of the book (which, if you didn't know, happens to be the sample chapter we put online at http://www.footballoutsiders.com/files/DAL%20sample.pdf), rookie corners almost always struggle. So Morris Claiborne may well be a Pro Bowler in three years, but it's doubtful he'll be any better in 2012 than Orlando Scandrick and Mike Jenkins were in 2011. Brodney Pool takes over for Abram Elam at safety, but that's a lateral move at best, and Gerald Sensabaugh is just another year older. They'll probably be better in 2012, but better means improving from "one of the worst secondaries in football" to "still pretty bad."

BTB: You note that the Cowboys were far better against 4-3 defenses than they were against 3-4 defenses. This is an assessment that many fans share, but why do you think the Cowboys didn’t fare as well against 3-4 teams?

FO: Best guess: Phil Costa is smart and savvy enough to operate well in space, but lacks the power to operate with a giant body right on top of him. That's why Bill Callahan was talking about Nate Livings or Bill Nagy unseating Costa at center, but Nagy was awful last year before breaking his leg, often getting pushed into the backfield himself.

BTB: You projected Miles Austin as the #1 prospect on FO’s 25 Top NFL Prospects list heading into 2009. At that point, Austin had not started a single NFL game, and you got that pick spectacularly right. As a result, Cowboys fans pay special attention to the Top 25 list, but the selections since then (Orlando Scandrick and Tashard Choice twice) haven’t worked out so well. Who makes the list for the Cowboys this year?

FO: We put our Top 25 Prospects list up on ESPN Insider this year, and the only Cowboy on the list is outside linebacker Victor Butler at No. 20. In limited action last year, Butler had three sacks, 10 hurries, and four QB hits. He'll likely see more action in 2012, and is probably Plan B at both outside spots in case either DeMarcus Ware or Anthony Spencer goes down.

BTB: Do your metrics provide any indication about what to expect from Miles Austin and Dez Bryant? Both were hampered by injuries last season.

FO: Our projection for Austin is 72-974-7; for Bryant, 63-928-9. Our player comment for Bryant notes all the on- and off-field similarities between Bryant and Terrell Owens, and noted the good chance he'd prove to be more of a headache than he was worth in the long run. I wrote that comment several weeks before he got into a fight with his mom.

BTB: What was the biggest surprise you found when doing the preview for the 2012 Cowboys?

FO: It wasn't really a surprise by the time we started putting the book together, but I still can't believe how much Dallas ignored their biggest offensive weakness over the offseason. The Cowboys were historically bad on third-and-short last year. Those are critical plays that can easily keep drives alive and put points on the board. A very slight upgrade here can mean big differences in wins and losses, and most teams that struggle in those scenarios make a point to do something substantial to get better there in a hurry. The Cowboys were content to grab a couple of bottom-rung free-agent linemen (Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings) and call it good.

Football Outsiders is obviously a lot more cautious about the Cowboys than the typical fan is, but that's okay. That's why they play the games. Dallas should be looked on with a suspicious eye, they have yet to prove they can pull it all together for a consistent season and beyond. Maybe Jason Garrett is the guy who can that done.

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