Throughout the 80s and into the early 90s, Miller Lite TV ads featured the likes of Rodney Dangerfield, John Madden, Bubba Smith and many other athletes and celebrities bickering back and forth under the campaign slogan of "Great Taste, Less Filling."
Cowboys fans were caught in a similar dichotomy after the loss to the Chiefs on Sunday: "It’s the offense!" vs. "It’s the defense!" were the battle cries in a heated and increasingly belligerent exchange of firmly held opinions and unshakable beliefs.
And when two seemingly irreconcilable positions such as the above clash, it’s always a good idea to turn towards an impartial observer for a resolution, which is exactly what we’re going to do today, as we try to spread some cheer and goodwill with the help of the fine folks at Football Outsiders (FO) and their special brand of statistical analysis.
Of course, two games are a very small base to draw any conclusions from, especially when you’re dealing with the fundamental philosophical differences of Offense/Defense, but perhaps there are some stats that are worth looking at more closely as we try to gain a more balanced perspective heading into the Rams game on Sunday.
Overall team effectiveness.
FO normally use a proprietary DVOA rating (which adjusts performance for down and distance situations, quality of opponent and more) for their rankings. This early in the season, their stats haven’t yet been adjusted for quality of opponent, so we’re only using VOA for now.
In FO’s Team Efficiency Rankings, the Cowboys rank 25th on offense, 17th on defense, and 3rd on special teams. So I guess that means … Hooray for special teams!
But in the Offense/Defense debate, those rankings don’t really provide much of a resolution – both units underwhelm.
FO use Yards Above Replacement (YAR) as a measure to rank offensive skill position players. YAR gives the value of a player's performance compared to a replacement level player at the same position, adjusts it for the game situation and opponent, and then translates that into a yardage number.
Unfortunately for the Cowboys, FO doesn’t show a lot of positives for the Cowboys skill position players. Here’s an overview:
|Yards Above Replacement, Offense, Week 2, 2013
Over two weeks, the skill position players for the Cowboys have combined for an overall performance that is barely above average in terms of YAR. In rankings like this, some exceedingly clever person is always bound to remark something along the lines of "No way is Dez Bryant only the 30th best WR in the league. Another reason why stats suck." Well, that’s not what these stats and rankings are suggesting. What they are showing is that over the first two games, Bryant played like only the 30th best WR in the league.
Of course, as Cowboys fans we know without a shadow of a doubt that every time something doesn’t work on offense, it is always, without fail, because of the offensive line and because of Jerry Jones’ stubborn refusal to draft offensive linemen.
Except the FO numbers disagree.
Where the entire Cowboys offense is ranked 25th, the offensive line is ranked a passable 11th in pass protection and 13th in adjusted line yards, which essentially calculates how much push the offensive line gets in the running game. The Cowboys O-line ranks a very poor 30th in short yardage or 'power' situations, but ranks as the 6th best unit in terms of stuffed runs allowed, and about average on medium and long runs.
The offense hasn't found its rhythm yet, especially in the passing game, and for once the O-line isn't the main culprit.
In raw yardage stats, the Cowboys defense ranks 24th against the pass and 11th against the run. In terms of VOA, the ranking isn't markedly different: Overall, the Cowboys rank 17th, with the pass defense ranking 20th and the run defense ranking 6th.
Let's take a look at some of the stats for defensive front seven.
|2nd level yards
|Open field yards
The pass rush is ranked in the top ten; the run defense is just barely outside of the top ten with an overall rank of 11. But FO provide a further breakdown by the following metrics:
Power Success: Percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown. Also includes runs on first-and-goal or second-and-goal from the two-yard line or closer.
Stuffed: Opposing runner is stuffed at or behind the line of scrimmage
Second level yards: Percentage of rushing between 5 and 10 yards out from the line of scrimmage
Open field yards: Percentage of rushing yards more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage
What you can read from these numbers is that the defensive line is extremely stout against the run up front. The Chiefs and Giants found it very hard to have short-yardage success on the ground. Unfortunately, the run defense doesn't look quite as stellar once the runner got past the D-line, often running outside the tackles. Here, the relatively low ranks of 16th and 22nd are an indication that the linebackers and the secondary are not quite as efficient at defending the run as we would like to believe.
For the pass defense, FO also offer an interesting metric by looking at the DVOA versus different types of receivers. Here's how the Cowboys fared over the first two games:
|vs. #1 WR
|vs. #2 WR
|vs. Other WR
The Cowboys' pass defense ranks at the bottom of the league against the top wide receivers and the tight ends - as befits a pass defense that ranks 27th in passing YPA allowed and 23rd in defensive passer rating. If you have a pass defense that can't defend the pass, you're not going to win a lot of football games.
Overall, the Football Outsiders stats suggest that the Cowboys' issues can be found on both sides of the ball. If the Cowboys want to contend this season, the offensive skill position players need to step up their game and the pass defense has to defend some passes.