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Outside Perspective: What The Football Outsider Stats Say About the 3-1 Cowboys

The Cowboys are sitting pretty at 3-1 and are getting a lot of praise from all sides. We look to Football Outsiders to see what their stats have to say about whether all the praise for the Cowboys is justified.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Two weeks ago, we looked at what the Football Outsiders stats had to say about the 1-1 Cowboys. At the time, the debate was about whether the game against the 49ers was an indicator of things to come, or whether the win over the Titans was a better predictor for the rest of the season.

Now that we've reached the quarter mark of the season, we're going to revisit that original post and have a look at where the team has improved and where it hasn't. To do that, we'll compare and contrast the Week 2 and Week 4 Football Outsiders (FO) metrics. Four weeks are still a small statistical base, but there is value in looking at these numbers anyway - and they are all we've got.

Overall team efficiency.

With four weeks of data, FO are back to using their proprietary DVOA rating (which adjusts performance for down and distance situations and more) for their rankings. The data is adjusted for opponent strength, although this early in the season, "opponent adjustments are currently at 40 percent strength and will increase gradually each week until after Week 10". Here are FO's Team Efficiency Rankings for the Cowboys after two and four weeks:

Cowboys Overall Team Efficiency (Rank)

Overall Offense Defense Special Teams
Week 2
19 18 22 5
Week 4
13 10 23 8

After starting off slowly, the Cowboys are on an upward trend. But that trend is almost entirely due to the Saints game. The Cowboy were ranked 19th after two weeks, stayed put at 19th after three weeks, and only moved up to 13th with the victory over the Saints. As fans, we have the most amazing ability to focus solely on the most recent results and ignore everything previous to that. These stats don't do that.

Under the impression of the Saints game, it's easy to pull out an overused Parcells-ism and unilaterally declare "You are what your record says you are," and while it's true that the Cowboys now stand at 3-1, it's also true that according to the FO metrics, the Cowboys were a below average team for the first three games.

But let's dig a little deeper.


FO use Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DYAR) as a measure to rank offensive skill position players. DYAR 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.

As can be expected from a unit that improved from 18th to 10th, some of the key offensive players also improved their individual rankings:

Yards Above Replacement, Offense, through Week 4, 2013
Player POS DYAR Week 4 Rank Week 2 Rank Change
Romo QB 140
13 29 +16
Murray RB 136 1 1 n.c.
Randle WR 24 - - - - - -
Dunbar WR -13 - -
- - - -
Bryant WR 112 5 7 +2
Williams WR -3 15 40 +25
Beasley WR 31 - - - - - -
Witten TE -17 31 43 +12

Despite being ranked tenth overall, not everything is rainbows and unicorns on the offense. After the Saints game, the mere suggestion that Tony Romo may not have performed at a top ten level over the entirety of the four games played draws derisive sneers, immediately followed by a unilateral dismissal of whatever data source is spreading such blasphemous rumors.

But the fact that Romo started slowly is not even debatable, regardless of your data source:

Overall Team Efficiency (Rank)

Wk 1
Wk 2
Wk 3
Wk 4
Football Outsiders
Rank: 29th
Rank 13th
Pro Football Focus -5.6 -0.6 +0.6 +2.0
Passer Rating
60.8 93.5 116.8 137.4
19.9 63.1 99.1 96.0

In fact, outside of DeMarco Murray, who's been ranked as the best back in the league after two weeks and after four weeks, every other player improved over the period. If you're wondering why Witten is ranked relatively low, keep in mind that FO does not account for a TEs blocking performance, but only his numbers as a receiver.

Another big part of the overall offensive rank is the O-line. FO like the run-blocking performance of the unit, but are not impressed one little bit by the unit's performance in pass protection.

Offensive Line (Rank)

Run Blocking Pass Protection
Week 2
2 30
Week 4
8 26

Again, there are voices that are ready to crown the Cowboys offensive line "the best O-line in the NFL." And while that may have been true for parts of the Saints game, it ignores the fact that the line has played four games (and not just one), and the results in the other three games have not necessarily been in line with what we may remember from the Saints game.

Over four games, the Cowboys have given up eight sacks for an adjusted sack rate of 7.3% (sacks per pass attempt adjusted for down, distance, and opponent), which ranks 26th in the league. Just for reference, the best teams in the league have an adjusted sack rate of around 2%.

There's a lot of excitement in Dallas about the young Cowboys offensive line, and deservedly so, but the line still has room to improve, recency bias notwithstanding.


The defense remains the problem child in Dallas, and in terms of DVOA, that hasn't changed over the last two weeks.

Overall Cowboys Defense (Rank)

Pass defense
Run defense
Week 2
22 18 28
Week 4
23 20 26

Digging deeper into the numbers suggest that for the Cowboys, the issues start up front, where the front seven can't rush the passer and ranks as the worst line in the league at stopping the run. Here's an overview of some of the stats for defensive front seven.

Pass Rush Run Blocking
Overall Power Success Stuffed 2nd level yards Open field yards
Week 2
20 26 1 12 31 23
Week 4
28 32 12 26 30 28

The front seven performance has not improved over the last two weeks, both in the pass rush and in run blocking. Here are the definitions for the metrics used in the table above.

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

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 so far:

Pass Defense
vs. #1 WR vs. #2 WR vs. Other WR vs. TE vs. RB
Week 2
6 28 12 10 8
Week 4
10 16 16 12 11

You're not going to win a lot of football games if you can't defend the pass, and the FO metrics rank the Cowboys pass defense 20th, or slightly below average - which would already be quite a step up for a pass defense that was ranked 27th last year.

Overall, the Football Outsiders stats suggest that when we complain about the Cowboys offense, we're complaining on a very high level. On defense, the issues start with an inability to rush the passer, extend to a league-worst run defense and carry over to a suspect pass defense.

With the way the team currently presents itself, a lot of Cowboys games will likely be a race where the first team to 30 points wins. The Cowboys can be that team on offense, and if they can force the other team to abandon the run in an effort to catch up, even the defense can look good.

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