If our Beloved 'Boys are to get off the 8-8 train, it probably won't be due to one significant improvement, breakout performance or outstanding statistical turnaround. Rather, I think the team will have to find lots of little areas in which to improve in order to be better than .500 in 2014. But what are these areas? How do we know which will be most impactful?
Conveniently, there are some useful statistical categories from previous seasons that can help us successfully predict what will happen in the NFL next season - sometimes because the numbers aren't likely to repeat. Here, I look at categories wherein a little bit of improvement, regression to the mean or return to former status would contribute to making a crucial difference. In subsequent posts, I'll outline some categories where the Cowboys are unlikely to be as successful as they were in 2013 and look at some statistical areas where we would love to see improvement, but where they are likely to remain the same. And away we go...
Point Differential: In 2013, the Cowboys scored 439 points and yielded 432, for a seven point differential. Perhaps because the Cowboys' season was so often frustrating, we forget that they scored the most points they had since 2007, and their 27.4 per game scoring average was better than the 1990s teams. In fact, you have to go back to the 1983 Danny While-led bunch to find a team (other than the 2007 squad) who outscored last year's Cowboys.
Why bring this up? Because we're not likely to see this offensive number spike much; indeed, its more likely to fall off some. So, if the Cowboys are going to enjoy a greater points differential in 2014, that difference will have to come from the defense. Looking at last year's standings, teams in the 10-6 range generally enjoyed a positive differential of 50-60 points. That would require that Dallas yield roughly 4.5 fewer points per game. Of course, a more consistent offense can help with that total...
Offensive Third Down Conversions: In 2013, the Cowboys offense was dead last in the NFL on third down volume stats, in both the number of third down attempts and conversions, and were twenty-fifth in the league in conversion percentage at 35%. Raising these figures to the middle of the pack will help the defense tremendously by keeping opposing offenses off the field.
Yardage Differential: After the New Orleans and Chicago debacles, the Cowboys were last in the league in yards differential, having allowed 1,280 more yards than they gained. Solid performances against the Packers (I know, right?!), Redskins and Eagles lifted them out of the cellar, to 31st in the NFL at season's end, ahead of only Jacksonville. Over the course of the 2013 campaign, Dallas was outgained by 1,188 yards, or 74.2 yards per contest. They'll have to get that figure closer to even if they are going to get off the 8-8 schneid in '14.
Injury Totals: This is the Cowboys' 2013 season in a nutshell: 70 missed games by defensive linemen; 21 by linebackers; six by corners; and 21 by safeties. On offense, the wide receivers missed eight, offensive linemen missed 42, running backs were out nine games and Tony Romo was unable to suit up once, in week 17. Couldn't get worse, right?
For years, during the Wade Phillips administration, the Cowboys were routinely among the league leaders in terms of health; indeed, outfits like Football Outsiders annually predicted a fall-off, largely because they believed that run of good health luck couldn't continue, and they would suffer from a regression to the mean. In 2012 and 2013, Dallas certainly fulfilled that statistical prophecy - and then some. Now, surely, it's time for a regression back to the mean, toward better health. Are you listening, Football Gods?
Team Age: As has been well documented, this team has gotten younger since Jason Garrett took over the helm, both by necessity and by design. And, as statistics have shown, young teams are good for two reasons: 1) they get better, faster; and 2) they are injured less frequently and heal more quickly from the injuries they do suffer.
Defensive Third Down Conversion Percentage: Last season, the Cowboys were twenty-ninth in the NFL, surrendering third downs at a staggering 43.3% clip. Any improvement whatsoever to this figure will be a great help. The good news is that there is a lot of room for improvement. For example:
Defensive First Downs: in 2013, Dallas yielded 388 first downs, the league's worst mark, and second most in history, behind (or in front of?) only the 1981 Colts. And they were remarkably consistent, coming in second-to-last in rushing first downs (122), thirtieth in passing (231) and twenty-sixth in penalty FDs, with 35. As with the above, any upward trend in this figure will be serve to help their overall game.
Romo's NY/A: In 2013, Romo had the lowest Net Yards Gained per Pass Attempt figures of his career. For those of you who are wondering, NY/A is derived as follows: (Passing Yards-Sack Yardage)/ (Pass Attempts - Times Sacked). By this metric, early-career Romo was not only good but historically good, notching one of the best career NY/As in league history. That said, he has fallen off in recent seasons, and bottomed out in 2013:
Number Nine doesn't need to revert suddenly to his 2006-07 form, but he does need to reverse this trend and demonstrate that the steady downward movement since 2009 has been the result of a deteriorating and then inept offensive line moreso that a declining arm or unwillingness to stay in the pocket long enough for medium-and long-range passes to develop.
As I noted in the intro, the Cowboys don't need for any of these figures to radically change for them to boast a better record in 2014. Rather, incremental improvements in each of these categories will accumulate, and become significant in a "whole is better than the sum of its parts" kind of way. The good news is that each of these is a category in which positive change is likely - in many cases because it couldn't get any worse.
Next: areas that are likely to experience a fall-off.