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Dallas Cowboys 2012: Going Deeper With Football Outsiders (Part II)

Count Football Outsiders among those happy with the play of Tony Romo
Count Football Outsiders among those happy with the play of Tony Romo

Yesterday, we posted Part I of our conversation with Football Outsiders about the 2012 Dallas Cowboys. Each year, FO puts out an almanac that covers every NFL team, and BTB has been chatting with them each year about their take on the Cowboys. They're not always as optimistic as a lot of us tend to be as training camp rolls around, but it's good to have an outsiders take on the team. Sometimes our fandom can get in the way of objective analysis.

Related: Dallas Cowboys 2012: Going Deeper With Football Outsiders (Part I)

So let's continue on with Part II:

BTB: Based on the data you’ve accumulated on Lawrence Vickers in Cleveland and Houston, what do you think his impact will be on the Cowboys ground game?

FO: The Texans ranked fifth last year in yards per carry and sixth in DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, FO's stat that measures explosiveness, consistency, fumbles, and many other factors) when running out of two-back sets. They were tenth and 11th in the same categories in single-back sets. Dallas ranked fourth and 19th in the same categories out of two-back sets, compared to 18th and 31st out of single-back sets. (That large split between yards per carry and DVOA for the Cowboys shows that their running game was explosive, but not at all reliable.) So Vickers should be effective, but aside from an ability to stay healthy, he may not be an upgrade over what Dallas had last year – Tony Fiammetta was fantastic when he was actually on the field. Either way, expect to see a lot of Vickers. Dallas had 259 runs out of two-back sets last year. Only five teams had more.

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BTB: While you rated the Cowboys’ defense a middling 11th on first downs and 15th on second downs, the Cowboys’ third down defense ranked only 29th in the NFL in 2011. To what degree do you see the third down defense improving, and if so, what are the biggest reasons?

FO: They'll probably be better on third downs, simply because they can't get much worse. But aside from Brandon Carr, why should we expect dramatic improvement? It's the same coach with the same pass rushers and largely the same secondary, save for Morris Claiborne – and again, rookie cornerbacks almost always struggle.

BTB: In addition to the secondary, one of the Cowboys’ biggest defensive weaknesses last year was pass coverage by the linebackers, particularly against tight ends. The Cowboys have exchanged Keith Brooking and Bradie James for Bruce Carter and Dan Connor. Do you see potential for an improvement there?

FO: If you're looking for the guys who covered tight ends last year, you're looking at the wrong players. Our game charters counted 17 passes thrown to the man Brooking was covering last year, and 12 balls thrown at James. That's less than two passes per game between them. As for the new guys, Connor played 15 games for Carolina last year, including 11 starts, and was targeted only six times all season. He's strictly a two-down guy. Carter was only targeted twice last year, so there's no info to go on there. But if you want to know who was usually covering tight ends, you need to look at Sean Lee (42 targets last year), Gerald Sensabaugh (26) and Abram Elam (25). Lee was the most important guy, and he was pretty average, ranking 41st among linebackers in Success Rate (which counts not only incomplete passes, but short receptions that gained insignificant yardage) and 21st in yards per target.

Actually, I just checked all passes thrown to tight ends in 2011, and you can't really put the blame on any one guy. Dallas opponents threw to their tight ends 119 times, and the most common defender listed in coverage was "hole in zone." Number two? "Uncovered." Lee was in coverage against tight ends on 12 passes, the most of any individual Cowboys defender, but this is a problem of scheme as much as personnel.

BTB: Which teams on the 2012 schedule do you think the Cowboys have a chance to surprise?

FO: All of them. Seriously, if there's anything I've learned in five-plus years of football writing, it's that any NFL team is capable of beating any other NFL team. If you're looking for a specific upset pick, our projection system is always high on Philadelphia, and they always seem to fall short of that mark. This year, we're high on Philadelphia again. Something about that team just seems to fool our system.

BTB: The Cowboys’ various win total possibilities include 41% at Mediocrity (5-7), 40% at Playoff Contender (8-10) and a 9% chance of being a Super Bowl Contender (11+ wins). Between the three, which do YOU see as more likely?

FO: Speaking as Vince Verhei, myself, and not the FO projection machine, I think they're solidly a playoff contender. The schedule is tough, and the flaws are too glaring to make them a Super Bowl favorite. But they also have a lot of strengths, most notably at quarterback. It's a QB-driven league, now more than ever, and I'm a big, big, big believer in Tony Romo. The fact is that he has been lousy in his four playoff games, but he has been stellar in 77 regular season starts. I know Eli Manning has rings, but I still think Romo's the best passer in the division.

BTB: This may come as a surprise to many Cowboys fans, but your two main stats for offensive lines show that the 2011 Cowboys offensive line was a borderline top ten unit: they ranked ninth in Adjusted Line Yards and twelfth in Adjusted Sack Rate. Can you explain which aspects of the O-line play helped push those numbers to where they are?

You noted the Cowboys’ affinity for and success with the draw play: Dallas ranked second with 47 run­ning back draws—the fourth straight year they have ranked first or second—and were third with a 7.9-yard average on those plays. What makes this play so successful for the Cowboys?

FO: I'm combining these questions because they feed into each other. I've been slagging the O-line throughout this piece, and then you point out that they were pretty good last year. Last year, though, they had Montrae Holland and Kyle Kosier. I said this before, but the line played much better last year after Bill Nagy broke his leg and Holland re-entered the starting lineup. Both Holland and Kosier remain unsigned, and though both are north of 30 and have about zero long-term benefit, I'd feel a little better about the 2012 Cowboys if one or both were brought back.

It's also worth noting that the Cowboys were ninth in ALY, but 23rd in power runs. (They were even worse in short-yardage passing.) They were especially good at running draw plays (only Kansas City ran more draw plays last year, and the Cowboys ranked third in yards per play and sixth in DVOA on draws). So they had the timing and cohesiveness to execute finesse runs very well. But when they had to get ugly and punch opponents in the mouth, they struggled.

The other player who deserves a ton of credit for the draw play is Romo. All teams run draws, but no quarterback sells the pass like Romo. He takes a long, deliberate pause and focuses on the receiver, and since he's such an effective passer the defense has to respect that threat. Then, after the linebackers have dropped into coverage and the rush ends have taken big loops to the outside, he gives the ball to DeMarco Murray or Felix Jones for an easy 5-yard gain. It takes a lot of guts, frankly, to stand there with the ball in your hand just a few feet from the teeth of the defense, and nobody can get it done like Romo.

Thanks to Football Outsiders and Vince Verhei for sharing their knowledge with us.

The 2012 Football Outsiders Almanac is for sale here as a PDF document, and you can download the Dallas chapter for free.

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