With the season more than halfway done, and the Dallas Cowboys sitting at 6-3, there is a little uncertainty about just how good the team is. It seemed to be one of the top contenders in the NFL when it was on the 6-0 run, but back-to-back losses have certainly sown some seeds of doubt.
I like to consider the scores awarded by Pro Football Focus. Although they have their detractors for both methodology (largely kept to themselves) and accuracy, they at least offer an attempt to look at all the players in the league using objective standards. Even acknowledging that they are not perfect, they do offer some insights into the team's performance without the subjectivity that fans have a hard time getting around. And frankly, the scores this season are a lot more fun to look at than the ones from 2013.
Here are some of the numbers that stand out, both good and bad, for your consideration.
Just a quick note on what PFF does: Each player is assigned a grade on each play of every game, The pluses and minuses are then totaled for the player's grade. The scores for all the games are totaled to get the current number. Similarly, all the scores for the players on each unit are summed up each game to give an overall score.
After the debacle that we refer to as the Arizona Cardinals game, you might have expected Dallas to slip down in the PFF ratings. But they didn't. As a unit, the Cowboys' offense is still the best in the NFL, and according to PFF, it isn't even close. They have a +49.9 (which is just under the 50 point cutoff which PFF uses as a sort of "elite" designation). The second place team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, only have +36.5 points. Only nine teams in the league have positive scores, and ten are below -50 (which obviously is the opposite of "elite"). One kinda neat thing about how PFF does all this is that the differential between the good and the bad teams tend to widen as the season progresses.
The secret to Dallas' success (at least as measured here): They are the only team in the league that has a plus score in all the subcategories: Pass, Rush, Pass Block, Run Block, and Penalty. Every other team has something they get negative marks in, but the Cowboys are good at all of it. Can you say "balance"?
Here are some of the individual players of note:
Tony Romo: +8.3. One of the true drivers on the offense. In other shocking news, the sun is expected to appear above the eastern horizon tomorrow. He is having a good year, and that is with a couple of bad performances bookending the win streak. He is clearly better than the backup. Speaking of which . . .
Brandon Weeden: -4.4. Think about that. In one game, Weeden basically eliminated over half of the plus score Romo brings to the team. He actually had a +0.7 against Washington, so, yeah, he kinda sucked last week.
Jason Witten: +12.8. The highest individual grade for the entire offense. So how many of you were worried about the Senator being over the hill this season? Fess up now.
Zack Martin: +12.7. The second-highest score, and the highest score for any right guard in the NFC. He may not get Rookie of the Year, but he is a serious contender for All Pro. Oddly enough, although he clearly is one of the elite at his position, he may not be the best rookie guard in the NFL. Joel Bitonio, who plays left guard for the Cleveland Browns, has a +15.3. Still, I have no buyer's remorse regarding Martin.
DeMarco Murray: +8.4. What is most notable here is that he has a -3.3 as a receiver. If you look just at his running, his +11.9 is almost double that of Marshawn Lynch, next in line at +6.5.
Gavin Escobar: +2.6. Note that he has this score on almost exactly one fifth of the number of snaps WItten has. In the eyes of PFF, at least, Escobar is as good as Witten when you consider his complete game. I'm sure it would not bear out if he had the same workload - but it also is a good argument for him not being the wasted pick many think he is. The only real problem with him is that the team is not going to take Witten off the field. Patience is called for here.
Dez Bryant: +2.9, Tyron Smith +3.2, and Travis Frederick -0.6. A trio of players who have lower numbers than most would expect.
Cole Beasley, Devin Street, Mackenzy Bernadeau, and Tyler Clutts - the only players beside Weeden on the entire offense with scores of -1.0 or lower, the "red" territory for PFF. There is a lot more good than bad for Dallas here.
Dallas comes in at 14th so far this season at +16.6, which is about as good or a little better than most of us were hoping they would do after the flood of dire predictions for how historically, epoch-definingly bad they were going to be. An interesting note that jumped out at me is that, despite all the rules favoring the offense, there are much higher defensive scores under PFF's system than you find offensively. The Dolphins lead the league with a +72.0, and fifteen teams manage to at least get into positive territory. Only four fall below the -50.0 level. It is hardly what you would expect after reading about how the rules have been skewed to favor lots of yards and high scores.
Individuals of note:
Tyrone Crawford: +15.1, Unquestionably he is the star of the defense so far this season. As Bob Sturm noted in his latest Xs and Os post, there is a lot he does that does not show up on conventional stat sheets, and PFF at least does try and ferret that kind of work out.
Henry Melton +9.9, Jeremy Mincey +5.9, Anthony Spencer +2.2, and Terrell McClain +1.3: The other rushmen who are above +1.0, in green grading territory. And DeMarcus Lawrence (+0.7) should quickly join them based on his almost getting there in his first game. The great Achilles' heel from last year is now one of the strengths of this team, and once Tyrone Crawford returns from injury, they may still have their best games ahead of them.
Bruce Carter -4.5, Brandon Carr -8.6: Two players with disappointing scores. Carter has run very hot and cold, and his future with the team has to be questioned. Dallas is of course locked into Carr financially. However, Sturm also observes in another article that other teams don't throw Carr's way very much, so this may be a bit misleading.
Nick Hayden -12.2. He is still the lowest graded player on the team. But they still like something about him. However, with the emergence of some of the other linemen and Josh Brent waiting in the wings, he may eventually get squeezed out.
Tyler Patmon +2.3. Not a bad score at all, especially for a rookie. Here is the part that is jaw dropping: He has that score on 23 total defensive snaps. 23. If he had as many snaps as Carr and maintained the same level of effieciency, he would grade out at +55.8. That is JJ Watt territory. I doubt Patmon could keep up that level of production, but it seems very, very clear that he should at least be given a chance to see the field more.
Just wanted to have a place for this.
Dan Bailey. +13.3. Split 'em.
Oh, and on a bit of a side note: There are 47 kickers who have been in at least one NFL game this season. Not counting Bailey, four of them, Billy Cundiff, Shaun Suisham, Nick Folk, and Kai Forbath, entered the NFL through the Dallas Cowboys. Add Bailey, and 10.6% of all kickers used in the NFL this season are products of the Dallas scouting system.