Inspired by the FPWs' "the cowboys make playoffs if..." series I'd like to point out the things that any football team must do to make the playoffs. But I hold the Cowboys to a higher standard than "make the playoffs" since I am one of those fans that considers anything less than a Superbowl appearance to be a bad season for the boys. So here are the 5 most common characteristics of Superbowl teams and how this Cowboys squad matches up.
#1 Superbowl teams have elite QBs
Here is the list of quarterbacks to win a superbowl in the last 10 years: Eli Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethisberger, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Joe Flacco. Every one of those quarterbacks is elite. You might argue that Flacco isn't elite and I'd agree with that except for the fact that his QB rating in the 2012 post-season was 117.2. 117 is not just an elite performance it's an elite-elite QB performance.
The Cowboys have a great but not elite QB in Tony Romo. In a bad season (2012) he probobly ranks somewhere around the 15th-11th QB. In a good season (2011) he can break the top-5. The Cowboys need the low turnover, high-accuracy elite Tony Romo to win a Superbowl. Despite what ESPN tells you, elite Tony Romo can absolutely bring home a ring, but average Tony Romo throws 3 turnovers in week 17.
#2 Superbowl teams get turnovers
If a team simply has more turnovers than its opponent it has an 80% chance of winning the game. Even creating simply 1 more turnover than your opponent mean you are 70% likely to win, regardless of anything else that happens in a game. Superbowl defenses are usually good defenses and there is no better example of how a turnover creating defense gets a team to a Superbowl better than New England. The Patriots' defense has been maligned as one of the worst in the league, surrendering more yards than most other defenses over the past few years. But in turnovers the Patriots are excellent. Last year they were among the best in the league with 52 turnovers despite ranking 29th in yards given up. In 2011 the Packers and Patriots both ranked 31st and 32nd in total yards surrendered but ranked #1 and #2 in interceptions. Both made deep playoff runs.
The Cowboys have been absolutely terrible in takeaways. The Cowboys tied for dead last in the league in interceptions last year. No one had fewer interceptions than the Cowboys. In fact, despite all the buster about confusing offenses and the replacement of both starting CBs, Rob Ryan's defense didn't come close to even creating as many turnovers as the terrible 2010 Wade Phillips/Paul Pasqualoni defense. The Cowboys need to change their defense to create more turnovers and hope that the Tampa-2 will be the solution.
#3 Superbowl teams defend the pass
When the Packers and Steelers won their trophies they had the best pass defense in the NFL. In 2012 San Francisco, Seattle, Green Bay, and Atlanta were 4 of the top-6 in pass defense in 2012 and all had excellent seasons. Arizona and Chicago were #1 and #2 but violated rule 1 above. If you can defend the pass you give yourself the opportunity to go far.
The Cowboys were tremendously bad in defending the pass in 2012. The only stat I need to tell you is that last year's Rob Ryan defense gave up a higher passer rating than the 2010 Terrence Newman/Alan Ball defense that got Wade Phillips fired. Injuries definitely played a role but when Paul Pasquoloni is coordinating a better defense with Alan Ball than Rob Ryan could, it's time for a change. The Cowboys pin their hopes on Monte Kiffin to bring the pass defense back to the respectable level that eluded Rob Ryan.
#4 Superbowl teams threaten with the run
The 49ers, the Ravens, the Steelers, the Giants - these are all teams that know how to run the ball. Their Superbowl victories are certainly won on the backs of their passing games, as all NFL wins are, but their running games threatened defenses every down. Defensive lines couldn't focus on how best to beat up a QB, they were focused on not getting steamrolled by some of the most powerful offensive linemen in the country. Even teams like the Colts and Patriots had running games that complimented their passing game well. Joseph Addai made a career on getting 8 yards on an easy draw every time linebackers started trying to cheat the pass against Manning. The Patriots made Danny Woodhead a star behind their fantastic offensive lines. You don't have to have a great running game to win a Superbowl, but it really helps to have a good one.
The woes of the Cowboys run game are well established. This is one of the more unfortunate aspects heading into 2013 as this factor was not well addressed. Certainly adding a center helps but there is still a lot of room for improvement between where they are now and where a team like the 49ers or Ravens are.
How do the Cowboys Stack up?
When we judge the 2012 Cowboys by these metrics we should be surprised they even won 8 games. Tony Romo had one of his worst years, the pass defense was horrible, and we shouldn't even talk about the running game. Projecting forward to 2013 there are some bright spots. Tony Romo can be an elite QB, we saw it in 2011 in particular. If he can regain that form this team has a chance. Monte Kiffin is coming in with a more proven defensive system than Rob Ryan's gives hope to an improved pass defense that at least can't get worse than one that made Alan Ball look good. If his defense can shore up the pass defense and, even more importantly, create turnovers, then we have something. The running game leaves a lot to be desired, though. Any improvement there is relying on a hope and a prayer that some talent emerges at offensive line during training camp.
So the final verdict is that if the Cowboys want to make a deep playoff run it will be on the back of a good Tony Romo season and a secondary that can take the ball away.