The 2014 Dallas Cowboys: In Which Statistical Categories Are They Likely To Fall Off?

Can Barry Church and his mates match 2013's defensive score totals? - Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

As 2013 fades into the distance and we look toward 2014, the thought on all Cowboys fans' minds is: how can this team finally break the string of 8-8 seasons and get on the winning side of the ledger? There are many statistical categories in which we have good reasons to believe they'll get better, but there are also several statistical categories in which they aren't as likely to match 2013's numbers.

As I noted in the series' first installment, there are some useful statistical categories from previous seasons that can help us successfully predict what will happen in the NFL the following season. In the first post, I looked at categories wherein a little bit of improvement, regression to the mean or return to former status would contribute to improving their fortunes in 2014. Today, I'll outline some categories where the Cowboys are unlikely to be as successful as they were in 2013.

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Defensive/ Special Teams Touchdowns Allowed: Last year, Cowboys opponents scored only once on a kickoff, punt, interception or fumble return, when the Raiders' Greg Jenkins got them with a 23-yard scoop-and-score early in the Thanksgiving game. That number stands as the team's lowest total since 1998, when they similarly allowed only one "cheap score." Other than those years, they have been fairly consistent, allowing between three and five scores a season. Since, 2007, Dallas has given up an average of 4.33 such scores a year. In other words, evidence suggests, that they will probably give up between two and four more cheapies in 2014 than they did in 2013.

Defensive Touchdowns Scored: In 2013, the Cowboys registered six cheap scores of their own (one punt return, two pick-sixes, and three fumble returns) after notching three in 2012.  Look when these happened: the two picks were by Brandon Carr (game one) and Sean Lee (game four), whereupon the pick-sixes dried up. The fumbles were distributed across the season: game one (Barry Church), week 9 (Nick Hayden) and week 11 (Jeff Heath). If, as more than a few football sabermetricians have demonstrated, fumble recoveries are luck and interceptions are due more to pressure (a skill), then it appears the Cowboys pressure stopped after game four, when DeMarcus Ware was injured against the Chargers. Given the status of the 2014 defensive line, the team will be hard pressed to repeat 2013's cheap touchdown total.

Strength of Schedule: In 2012, the Cowboys SOS was .480, which was the league's eight easiest or, depending on your perspective, 25th hardest schedule. In 2013, it's .488, which is ten places harder, putting them at the 15th hardest. And, it would probably be much harder if it weren't for six games against NFC East teams. In recent years, the Cowboys have enjoyed relatively easy opening months, with murderer's rows coming in December and January. In 2014, there's no soft opening; the Cowboys first six games all range from difficult to downright nasty. We'll know a lot about this team by October 12th, after they have finished playing what are probably the NFC's three best teams (49ers, Saints, Seahawks) as well as a couple of AFC up-and-comers (Houston and Tennessee). Plus the uber-talented Rams. Unless they hit some of these squads when key players are missing, the Cowboys will have a more difficult row to hoe in 2014 than they did the previous season.

Fumble Recovery Rate: In 2013, the Cowboys recovered a league-leading 67.6% of all fumbles, both their own and those of their opponents. The Cowboys fumbled 18 times, recovering ten; their opponents fumbled sixteen times, and Dallas recovered 13 of them! That's a total of 23 recoveries for 34 fumbles. Chase Stuart, who compiled these numbers for a post at Football Perspective, wrote:

In December, I wrote that the 7-6 Cowboys curiously ranked 32nd in yardage differential (Dallas ended the year 31st in that category). In that post, I noted that the Cowboys had recovered 80% of all opponent fumbles, and Dallas also recovered the lone fumble they forced in the final three games of the year. The amazing fumble recovery rate of the Dallas defense is the reason the team ranked as the best at recovering fumbles in 2013, as the offense was just slightly above-average at recovering its own fumbles.

That leads to a very scary conclusion for 2014: last year's Cowboys defense was actually the beneficiary of some good fortune!

Stuart concludes, after an analysis of fumbles from 1990-2012, that the Cowboys recovered six more fumbles than would be expected. If we accept the premise expressed above - i.e., that fumble recovering is largely a matter of luck - then we should expect the dreaded "regression to the mean." In 2014. That's between six and ten additional stops that the Dallas defense will have to make, either by forcing the opposing offense to punt or by coaxing more interceptions from rival signal callers. Either way, as Stuart suggests, clouds are beginning to obscure the 2013 defense's one sunny patch.

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In the series' first post, I mentioned several categories in which, by making incremental improvements, the Cowboys could elevate their chances of breaking the 8-8 schneid in which they have found themselves for the last decade three years. The good news in those categories is that positive change is likely; the bad news is that any positive change is likely to be offset by a return to Earth in some of 2013's few bright spots. So, will Dallas make enough improvement in areas such as defensive third down conversion percentage to burst the .500 bubble, or will they continue to be the NFL's version of Even Steven?

Next up: some statistical areas where the Cowboys are likely to remain the same.

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