The Cowboys Make The Playoffs If: The Pass Defense Is Fixed

Elsa

The key to the Cowboys making the playoffs will be an improved pass defense, whether through a better secondary or an improved pass rush. Don't trust anybody who tells you otherwise.

Today, winning in the NFL is all about passing efficiency. The best offenses are those that pass the ball the most effectively, the best defenses are those that prevent their opponents from passing effectively. The best teams in the league are those that do both.

One way to understand which teams are particularly good at both is by looking at the offensive- and defensive passer rating. In the seven seasons that Tony Romo has been the quarterback for the Cowboys, the offense has ranked in the top ten as measured by offensive passer rating (OPR) in five seasons. In the seasons the Cowboys did not rank in the top ten in offensive passer rating (2008 and 2010) backup QBs Brad Johnson and Jon Kitna saw enough playing time to have the Cowboys drop out of the top ten. Overall though, this is quite an impressive run:

Dallas Cowboys Offensive Passer Rating and Rank, 2006-2012
Year 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
OPR 86.5 97.1 84.9 97.6 90.4 100.1 91.3
NFL Rank 8th 3rd 13th 6th 12th 4th 9th

Over those seven years, only four teams in the NFL have averaged a better OPR rank than the Cowboys. In order, those are the Patriots (4.9 avg. rank), Saints (5.6), Packers (6.9), and Chargers (7.0). The Cowboys rank fifth with a 7.9 average rank over those seven seasons.

You may not hear or read this very often, but the Cowboys have one of the top passing attacks in the league, led by one of the top QBs in the league. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the Cowboys' pass defense. Here's how the Cowboys have ranked in defensive passer rating (DPR) over that same period.

Dallas Cowboys Defensive Passer Rating and Rank, 2006-2012
Year 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
DPR 83.2
75.1
86.2
83.5
92.8
88.4
94.7
NFL Rank 20th
5th
20th
16th
29th
25th
29th

Averaging the NFL ranks over the last seven seasons gives the Cowboys a value of 20.6, which is tied with the Texans for the 29th worst average rank. Only the Vikings (21.3 avg. rank) and the Lions (26.4) were worse over that period.

We know that passer rating (and many of the stats linked closely to it) is one of the stats most closely linked to winning in the NFL, especially if you look at passer rating differential. Over the last seven years, the Cowboys have combined a top five passing attack with a bottom five pass defense as measured by passer rating. Guess which unit has ample room to improve?

It doesn't take a degree in anything to figure out that the quickest way to get more wins for the Cowboys in 2013 is via an improved pass defense. The Cowboys already have a top passing offense, so there isn't really that much room for improving the passer rating differential via the offense. That leaves the defense.

At the end of the day, if the Cowboys want to make the playoffs in 2013, they'll have to fix their pass defense. How they go about that, via an improved pass rush or an improved secondary is largely a philosophical question. And beggars can't be choosers: The pass defense collected a total of only seven interceptions last year, tied for the lowest in franchise history (1989, 1997) and the pass rush recorded only 34 sacks, the lowest since 2006 and the 8th-lowest in franchise history since sacks became an official stat in 1982.

Barring a catastrophic collapse of the passing offense, the key to the Cowboys' 2013 success is their ability to fix the pass defense. A defensive passer rating in the low 80s will see the Cowboys make the playoffs.

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