After Seven Games: Are The 2013 Cowboys Better Than The Two Previous 8-8 Teams?

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODA

At 4-3 after seven games, the Cowboys are off to a better start than the 3-4 starts they had in 2012 and 2011. We look at where the 2013 team stands after seven games versus its previous two iterations.

The Cowboys lead the division after seven games with a 4-3 record, a much better situation than in 2012 and 2011, when they started the season 3-4 in both years, and found themselves three wins behind the division leader in 2012 and two wins in 2011.

Meaningful coincidence or just random data points: in both 2011 and 2012, the Cowboys went 5-2 after their first seven games. Can the 2013 Cowboys also go 5-2 over their next seven games?

Next up on the schedule are the Detroit Lions on Sunday. The Cowboys are underdogs in that game, but that game is followed by a game against the lowly Vikings before the Cowboys head to New Orleans for what is sure to be a tough game. The Cowboys then have a bye week to prepare for a road trip to New York, the Thanksgiving game against the Raiders and a trip to Chicago before closing the seven-game stretch against the Packers at home. 5-2 sounds possible, but it's not going to be easy.

With that in mind, how much different are the 2013 Cowboys compared to the previous two iterations of the team, both of which finished their seasons 8-8? One way of looking at how the three teams compare is to look at where each team stood after seven games in a number of key statistical categories. In comparing the stats over three years, we'll use a simple color scheme to denote where the 2013 team stand against its previous iterations:

Green : better than both 2012 and 2011
Yellow : better than at least one of the previous seasons
Red : worse than both 2012 and 2011

Apart from the W/L record, the most obvious place to start comparing the three teams is by looking at the all-important scoring differential, which headlines our overview of topline team stats in the table below.

Stats after 7 games
'11 Cowboys '12 Cowboys '13 Cowboys
Points scored 156 137 200
Points allowed 162 162 155
Points Differential -6 -25 +45
TO ratio -2 -11 +5
Penalties 47 55 48
Penalty yards 338 383 408

The 2013 Cowboys look much better in scoring differential and the closely linked turnover ratio. Note also that while the defense has only allowed marginally fewer points than in the previous two years, the turnovers the defense has generated are one key driver for the significantly improved scoring offense, which ranks third in the league on a points scored per game basis.

Overall, the numbers above paint a good picture of the 2013 Cowboys. Let's dig a little deeper into some of the offense stats to see whether the picture remains as green as it was in the first table. Here is how the 2013 offense compares to the 2012 and 2011 version:

OFFENSE after 7 games
'11 Cowboys '12 Cowboys '13 Cowboys
Passer Rating 87.7 81.2 101.6
TDs 12 10 15
Interceptions 9 13 5
Passing yards /Attempt 7.8 7.4 7.6
Sack /Attempt 5.7% 4.4% 5.7%
Yards per rush 4.8 3.6 3.9
Rush yards per game 115 86 83
Third Down Efficiency 34.1% 44.0% 37.5%
Red Zone TD % 39.1% 47.8% 68.0%
Punt returns 8.2 5.5 15.1
Kickoff returns 21.8 21.8 31.2

As an offense, the Cowboys haven't gotten that much better, although a first glance at the numbers would suggest they have. No, the Cowboys have gotten much more efficient in most key offensive metrics: Romo is much more efficient in protecting the ball; the Cowboys have the third best redzone TD rate in the league (17 TDs on 25 red zone possessions); they rank sixth in the league in passer rating. There's still work to be done on improving third down efficiency, and a few more yards on the ground would also be nice, but the Cowboys offense is in a good place overall.

Also, note the numbers in the return game: the Cowboys are averaging a good ten yards more per return versus last year. That's an incredible achievement. Bill Parcells used to call this 'hidden yardage', and the Cowboys are getting lots of it this year.

The Cowboys defense has received a lot of praise this season, most of which is deserved. But the numbers are not as unequivocally positive as you may have been led to expect:

DEFENSE after 7 games
'11 Cowboys '12 Cowboys '13 Cowboys
Passer Rating 83.4 87.3 87.4
TDs 11 7 14
Interceptions 7 3 9
Passing yards /Attempt 7.1 7.2 7.3
Sack /Attempt 8.4% 6.6% 6.3%
Yards per rush 4.0 4.0 4.3
Rush yards per game 93.9 104.7 102.3
Third Down Efficiency 44.1% 34.1% 38.5%
Red Zone TD % 57.1% 50.0% 56.5%
Punt returns 7.7 3.2 6.7
Kickoff returns 22.5 25.2 20.0

The fact that the Cowboys have played some pretty good defense over the last two games can't quite obscure the fact that Cowboys have had some unflattering defensive performances earlier.

The numbers for the defense simply don't look good, although I'll freely admit that I don't fully understand how much of this is due to more of a bend-but-don't-break defensive approach as opposed to a general suckitude. Also, remember how we were telling each other in the offseason how the new defense would need time to come together? Maybe that's a part of what you're seeing in the numbers above.

The good news is that we're seeing improvement. Let's hope it turns out to be sustained improvement, because most of the time numbers like the above won't get you very far.

So what's your take, are the 2013 Cowboys just another 8-8 team in disguise or will they get rolling once the defense is firing on all cylinders?

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