In the NFL, we overreact to everything. If our team wins two games in a row, we start clearing our calenders for the playoff weekends. If our team loses two games in a row, we start scouting college prospects for the draft because the season is "definitely over".
And that's because the NFL's uniquely short season gives each game an importance that you don't find in many other sports. In the NFL, one game can change everything.
Which is why overreaction Monday is an actual thing in the NFL, where a win produces unbridled optimism garnered with rainbows and unicorns, and where a loss results in a state of apocalyptic panic.
But what sometimes gets lost in the narrow focus on the last game and the next game is that some Cowboys players have played some great football over the last 13 games, just as some players are having less than stellar seasons. So today we're going to look at those players who have (quietly for the most part) delivered a fine season so far.
To do that we'll look at those Cowboys players who rank at or close to the top (at least top 20) within their position groups after 13 games as per their Pro Football Focus grades. Keep in mind that the PFF grades are cumulative - if two guys were to get the same grade for each game, but one guy has 10 games to the other guy's 13, the player with 13 games will have the higher total grade. Also note that the grades are not comparable between positions, i.e. Zack Martin with a grade of 19.7 is not twice as good as Jason Witten with a grade of 9.2. With that out of the way, this is how the Cowboys players rank after 13 games:
|POS||Player||Position Rank||Qualifying Players||Percentile||Season Grade|
'Position Rank' shows where a player is ranked within his position group, 'Qualifying Players' shows how many players are ranked in that position group, e.g. Travis Frederick is ranked second out of 41 centers who've played at least 25% of their team's snaps. The 'Percentile' number tells you where a player is ranked relative to his peers at the same position, e.g. Dwayne Harris has a percentile rank of 95%, which means he's been graded better than 95% of the returners in the league - or in other words, he's in the top 5% at his position.
As you would expect, the offense is well represented here. The entire offensive line makes the list, as do most of the skill position players, and even James Hanna gets in. Hanna may not have much of a standing among parts of Cowboys Nation, but the graders at PFF like him for his run-blocking, and grade him as the eighth-best run-blocker in the league, almost on par with Jason Witten, who's ranked fifth.
Really the only notable omission on offense is Terrance Williams, who's ranked 65th out of 111 wide receivers.
The defense too is well represented, though the strong showing here is rather unexpected. Football Outsiders rank teams across all three phases, and they have the Cowboys as the number eight offense, the number 13 special teams, and the number 24 defense. Yet the Cowboys have seven defensive players ranked within the top 20 at their positions. Even if we discount Justin Durant, who only played in six games before ending up on IR, that's still a lot.
After Week 14 last year we looked at the same data we're looking at now. At the time, the Cowboys had only three defenders ranked within the top 20 at their positions: Jason Hatcher (88%), Sean Lee (87%), and DeMarcus Ware (82%). None of the three returned to play for the Cowboys this year, yet a defense widely believed to have been gutted of talent now has seven instead of three players in the positional top 20. That's got to count in favor of the coaching staff and the front office (notice that three free agent acquisitions show up on the list).
At the same time, there's a reason why the Cowboys defense is ranked where it is, and that's because a handful of good players cannot hide the issues at other positions.
- The defensive line rotation does not yet have the consistent quality it needs to be effective. Terrell McClain (46/79, 42%), George Selvie (39/54, 28%) or Nick Hayden (79/79, 1%) won't be making the Pro Bowl this year.
- At linebacker, the Cowboys were hit with injuries, and while they got lucky with Rolando McClain, adequately replacing the injured trio of Sean Lee, Justin Durant, and DeVonte Holloman proved too tall an order. Bruce Carter (34/39, 13%) didn't live up to his draft pedigree, and expecting rookie Anthony Hitchens (33/39, 15%) to seamlessly fill any open gap was simply expecting too much.
- The secondary is not in a good shape either. Barry Church (26/86, 70%) grades out well, but J.J. Wilcox (78/86, 9%) doesn't impress the graders at PFF at safety. At corner, Scandrick is in the top 20, and Sterling Moore (27/113, 76%) isn't too far behind, but Brandon Carr (109/113, 4%) has run afoul of the PFF graders.
If the Cowboys were to pick the highest graded defender - regardless of the specific position - left on their draft board with every one of their eight draft picks, they wouldn't be doing anything wrong. Such is the absence of depth on defense.
On special teams, we see Dan Bailey and Dwayne Harris about where we expect them, and it's nice to see punter Chris Jones get some recognition from the PFF graders, which is something he doesn't get much from the often hyper-critical Cowboys fans.