We've reached the quarter mark of the season, and after Sunday's win over the Saints, things couldn't be any sunnier in Cowboys Nation. The Cowboys are racing up the Power Rankings charts, DeMarco Murray is chasing records, national football writers are swooning as they write about the Cowboys O-line, the Landry Shift has made some of the most jaded and weary Cowboys fans feel all warm and tingly inside. Heck, even our little blog is back to its accustomed No. 2 position among SB Nation NFL blogs as interest in all things Cowboys has noticeably picked up.
Bill Parcells, who seemingly has a soundbyte for every occasion in life, has a Parcells-ism for exactly this situation:
"Don't eat the cheese."
At the quarter mark of the season, it's important to remember that the Cowboys have already played four games this season, and not just one the one game against the Saints. And as gratifying, exhilarating, and negative-nancy-shut-upping as the game was, there was plenty that went wrong over the entire four games played to date.
Which is why today we'll take a look at the positional rankings (or percentile rankings) of the Cowboys players over the entire four weeks of play.
The idea behind positional rankings is to find a metric that makes all players in the league comparable. Currently, the only service that offers a metric for every single player in the league is Pro Football Focus (PFF), but instead of looking at the grades they assign to the players, we're going to look at where a given player is ranked relative to the other players in the league at his position .
Example: PFF ranks wide receivers by the cumulative grade they have received so far this season. That ranking lists all 111 wide receivers who played at least 25% of the snaps for their team over the first four games. Going by their receiving grade only, Dez Bryant is ranked as the 14th best wide receiver in the league, Terrance Williams is the 35th, and Cole Beasley the 73rd.
Because each position group has a different number of qualifying players (e.g. the QB list only features 37 players, most other position groups have more), to make the rankings comparable across all positions, I've converted all positional rankings to a scale of 0 - 100. The highest ranked player at a position gets 100 points, the lowest ranked player gets 0. By that logic, Bryant gets an 87 positional ranking [(1-14/111)*100], Williams gets a 68, and Beasley gets a 34. With me so far?
I repeated that calculation for all Cowboys players based on the overall ranking scale provided by PFF, with the exception of tight ends and wide receivers, where I only used PFF's ranking by receiving grade, not the overall grade. Finally, I divided the results into quintiles, which delivers the following positional ranking groups:
|100-81||Blue-Chip Cowboys Players
|80-61||NFL starter quality at position
|60-41||Average to slightly below average player
A player marked in blue is ranked in the top 20% of players at his position group, a player marked in green is ranked in the top 40% of players at his position, and so on. In the next table, I've summarized the results for all 32 Cowboys players who've played on at least 25% of the snaps in 2014.
As you review the figures and charts in the rest of this post, keep in mind that the numbers give a directional indication of how a player performed over the first six games, but shouldn't be seen as a definitive statement of a player's quality. While I'm confident that a player marked in blue had a better start to the season than a player marked in yellow, there is probably less of a difference between players with a value of, say, 75 and 85 than the numbers and the color code would seem to indicate.
|2014 Cowboys Positional Rankings, Week 4
This table is built using the PFF player grades. As such, many of the individual rankings are debatable, and there are probably good arguments to be made why a given player should be ranked higher or lower, and this is especially the case for borderline players who are just short of the next quintile. But overall, I think it's a good approximation of where the team stands - based on the performance over the first four games of the season.
The first thing that pops out in this view at the roster is the high number of players in the "Blue Chip" quintile. The Cowboys have 9 players who qualify for this quintile, only the Ravens (12) and Colts (10) have more. At the other end of the the Buccaneers have just one player in blue (DT Gerald McCoy), while the jaguars have two (defensive linemen Red Bryant and Ryan Davis). Across the NFC East, the Giants and Redskins have eight players in blue, the eagles only have six.
Blue-Chips: DeMarco Murray deservedly leads this table and is graded as the number one running back in the league. Two very pleasant surprises here are Rolando McClain and Sterling Moore, the other names shouldn't be a big surprise. Note that I've aggregated Tyrone Crawford's DT and DE grades (he played DT against the Saints) into one grade, so he shows up here slightly higher than he does on the PFF DE ranking. Similarly, Jason Witten is shown here an 85 positional ranking because I've chosen to limit TEs and WRs to their receiving grade only. Without that limit, Witten would be a 95 and James Hanna would be a 70.
We'll talk about the secondary a little further below, but for now it's nice to see two corners ranked in the blue.
Starter-Quality: This is a fairly thin category currently, though I expect more players currently ranked as average players to move up into this category as the Cowboys continue to have success. As it is, there are only four players in this group at present. Terrance Williams is coming into his own at wide receiver, and it's nice to see Henry Melton and Jeremy Mincey get the accolades here that many fans don't want to give them. Justin Durant also makes the list, despite missing two games.
Average Players: Keep in mind that with the way the PFF grading works, and with just four weeks of data, most of the players on this list are a couple of plays away from moving up or down into the next quintile. All four offensive linemen not named Tyron Smith are in this quintile, and while we can expect all lineman to end up in the blue if they continue playing like they did against the Saints, the other three games also happened, and for now those other thre games makeup three quarters of the grade. This is how the five starters on O-line graded out cumulatively in each game so far:
Week 1 : -2.9 | Week 2: -1.1 | Week 3: -2.5 | Week 4: +8.4
We see a similar trajectory for most other players in this quintile, so there really is no reason for concern here.
Underperformers: Much as I like to be the purveyor of glad tidings and good cheer, the Cowboys still have issues that need to be addressed. The players here have all underperformed to some extent this year, and Tony Romo is perhaps the poster child of this group. Here are his personal grades and how they have developed from a shaky start to a stellar performance in his last game:
Week 1 : -5.6 | Week 2: -0.6 | Week 3: +0.6 | Week 4: +2.0
But not every player listed here has the same feelgood story that Romo has, and it's a little worrying to see three defensive linemen in this group, all of whom are ranked this low due to their negative pass rushing grades.
Red Flags: Chris Jones is a regular in the red flag zone, and the fact that he's still with the Cowboys likely means that PFF grade punters differently than the Cowboys do. But that's no biggie. By far the biggest issue here is that three starters in the Cowboys secondary are ranked this low.
With the eternal caveat about low sample size, here are the defensive passer ratings for all four Cowboys corners:
That's not going to cut it in the long term. Over the first four games, the defense has a defensive passer rating of 94.2, almost the exact same value they had in 2013 when they finished the season with a 96.0 passer rating. The Cowboys' pass defense has not improved one little bit versus last year.
The 3-1 record and the win against the Saints are both currently acting like a deodorant that's masking the stink emanating from the pass defense. If the Cowboys don't get a grip on their pass defense, that warm and tingly feeling you have right now will quickly turn into a painful, gut-wrenching experience. Here's the passer rating of opposing QBs over the first four weeks:
Colin Kaepernick: 125.5 | Jake Locker: 60.2 | Austin Davis: 98.0 | Drew Brees: 100.6
You'll need a stellar offense every single game if your going to consistently allow passing performance like that and still hope to win.
Summary: Overall, there's a lot to like about how the roster grades out, with the upside that the Cowboys may have started hitting their stride after a shaky start, something that isn't reflected in the grades and rankings yet. At the same time, the data here suggests that the pass defense is the Achilles heel of the 2014 Cowboys feelgood story.