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BTB Interviews Football Outsiders On The State Of The Cowboys

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Foa10-155_medium_mediumIn July of this year, Football Outsiders released their ‘Football Outsiders Almanac 2010’ and if you’re even remotely interested in football statistics and analysis, it is a must-read. The Almanac is still available as a .pdf file or in book form and it can be purchased here or from Amazon here.

In this year’s edition, FO projected 7.5 wins for the Cowboys in 2010 and saw them finishing last in the NFC East. We published an interview with FO's Bill Barnwell at the end of July in which I and many commenters took him to task for, and laughed heartily at, such a ridiculous projection. After all, it was clear to all of us at the time that the Cowboys were destined for great things and at least 10+ wins. Go and read that original post, it is hilarious in a very masochistic kind of way.

Well, things have changed. The Cowboys are now 1-7 and we go hat-in-hand to Bill for a series of follow-up questions. I asked him to go easy on us in these trying, trying times for Cowboys fans. Find out what he had to say after the break.

Blogging The Boys: Dallas was not the only team that you projected to finish far below where the majority of observers ranked them at the start of the season. The Bengals, Saints, Vikings and Chargers – each one a popular preseason lock for the playoffs - all projected badly, and lo and behold, your projections are smack on target. How do your projections rate so far at the midseason mark?

I think they've been pretty good; certainly, a lot better than last year's! In addition to those teams you mentioned, we had the 49ers and Chargers pegged for disappointing seasons, while we were projecting the Chiefs to win the AFC West.

On the other hand, the Texans and the Raiders have definitely been outplaying our projections so far. And we're only halfway through the year, so there's still a long way to go. I'll say that we're pleased with how things have gone so far.

BTB: Now, we’ve marveled enough at your prognosticating acumen, but we can’t let you off the hook so easily. You predicted 7.5 wins for the Cowboys. I want those wins now! How in the world do you see the Cowboys making those extra 6.5 wins in the remaining 8 games?

The half-win is going to be the trickiest part, right? I think that the Cowboys have certainly been an unlucky team so far. They've been an impressive 0-5 in games decided by a touchdown or less so far this year. In 2007-09, they were a much more reasonable 11-8 in those contests. And since 1983, only 12 teams have gone winless in games decided by a touchdown or less. In the subsequent season, those teams went 42-45, so just about average. I think you'll see some luck bounce the Cowboys way in the second half of the season.

BTB: There are many things wrong on many levels with this team right now, but one point I’d like to focus on is the complete and utter collapse of the Cowboys once-vaunted defense. Last year the defense ranked second in points allowed, and 12th in FO’s DVOA rating, this year they rank second from the bottom in points allowed and 27th in DVOA. Does your analysis provide an answer for how this can happen to a unit that has returned 10 of 11 starters?

The secondary's played far worse. In the Maple Street Press book on the Cowboys that Dave Halprin edited, I contributed an essay that focused on what Dallas needed to improve upon to make the Super Bowl. I noted that the team's performance on offense and against the run had been markedly consistent from 2007-09, but the pass defense had fallen off from eighth to 12th to, in 2009, 15th.

I expected the pass defense to improve a bit thanks to an improved pass rush, and while it has -- from seven percent last year to nearly 10 percent this year -- the play of the secondary has fallen off, and I think it's fair to say that's been across the board.

BTB: While the NFL is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league, for what it’s worth, the Cowboys did finish 11-5 last season and won a playoff game. The collapse this year leaves many fans wondering whether the Cowboys really are as talented as they’ve been led to believe. Any insight into this from a numbers point of view?

I don't think so. The 2009 Cowboys finished fifth in our DVOA rankings last year, just ahead of the Super Bowl champion Saints. Their Pythagorean expectation, which estimates their win-loss record based on their points scored and points allowed, says that they were an 11-win team last year. I can't think of an objective measure that says that the Cowboys were anything short of a great team last year. Sometimes, though, great teams get old. And go 0-5 in close games.

BTB: Assuming you were in charge of this franchise, and you could change everything except the owner ("Don't imply there that my role is going to change at all," Jones said. "Don't do that. You'll get something stuck."), what would you do to get this franchise back on track? [Note: Bill replied to my questions on Monday morning before news of the coaching change broke]

If Jerry Jones's role isn't going to change, the Cowboys aren't going to be able to hire someone to replace Wade Phillips (let's assume he's being let go as part of this plan) that has any sort of significant track record as an NFL coach. Coaches don't particularly enjoy having an owner breathing on their neck every chance they get.

Under that scenario? I'd look for a coach who has experience running a 3-4 team and isn't player-friendly. That screams Bill Cowher, but why would Cowher want to come coach under Jones? The best bet might be someone like Dom Capers, for better or worse. Beyond the coaching, I wouldn't change all that much. I'd take my top-five pick and draft an offensive lineman, and if I was going to make any dips into free agency, it would be to improve the line on either side of the ball.

BTB: In closing - Is there anything else you'd like the Cowboys community to know, or any other tidbit of information you'd like to pass on to us?

As for a closing? It's been a rough year, but there's a lot of talent in Dallas. The Cowboys will be back, and it won't be very long from now.

I'd like to thank Bill for taking the time to answer my questions and debating us regularly here at BTB without taking some of our reactions to heart. If you've never checked out, I highly recommend you do so - it will greatly enhance you appreciation for stat-based discussions in football. Finally, for football and a good dose of fun mixed together, follow Bill Barnwell on Twitter.

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