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For Dallas Cowboys, Quality Of Opposing QBs Will Make Or Break 2014 Season

The key to a better record in 2014 for the Cowboys will be an improved pass defense. But can the pass defense stop ordinary QBs from playing extraordinarily well against Dallas?

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys had one of the worst defenses in the league last year. And many observers expect this year's defense to be even worse, if that is at all possible.

Which is why there's a popular school of thought that places the burden for winning games this year squarely on the shoulders of the offense. BTB-member Icebowl68 deftly summarized that line of thinking back in May:

With the Cowboys in total rebuild mode on the defensive side of the ball, it would behoove Linehan, Romo, and the rest of the braintrust to formulate a gameplan which allows the Cowboys to score 30 points or more each game. They have the personnel to do it, let’s get it done. Denver proved last year that a crankin’ offense and a sub-mediocre defense can get you to the promised land.

That's a nice thought, particularly when you consider that teams routinely win games when they score 30 points or more. Last year, NFL teams went 116-21 (.847) in games where they scored 30+ points. Teams like the 49ers (8-0), Patriots (7-0), Panthers, Bengals, Saints (all 6-0), Colts, Lions and Seahawks (all 5-0) did not drop a single game when they scored 30+ points.

The Cowboys were 4-3 when scoring 30 points or more, and their three losses are more than any other NFL team had when scoring 30+ points. If the Cowboys had won every game in which they scored 30+ points, they would have been in the playoffs.

But they didn't and they weren't. In fact, points scored did not correlate at all with wins for the 2013 Cowboys. But points allowed did, as the following table illustrates:

2013 Cowboys W/L record by points scored/allowed
Points scored Points allowed
More than 30 4-3 1-6
Less than 30 4-5 7-2

The Cowboys were 4-3 when scoring more than 30 points and 4-5 when scoring less than 30 points, an indication that the ability to score did not have as big an impact on the outcome of games as one would expect. That correlation becomes much clearer when you look at points allowed.

In 2013, the Cowboys W/L record was primarily driven by the defense, not the offense.


I've argued at length and repeatedly that the key to the Cowboys making the playoffs is an improved pass defense, and last season was another textbook example of that.

This next table features last year's schedule, along with the opposing quarterback and his passer rating in that game, as well as a W/L indicator. For your convenience, the table is sorted by passer rating in descending order.

Week Opponent QB Passer rating Cowboys W/L
14 @ Bears Josh McCown 141.9 L
10 @ Saints Drew Brees 139.0 L
5 Broncos Peyton Manning 129.6 L
17 Eagles Nick Foles 124.4 L
4 @ Chargers Philip Rivers 120.3 L
15 Packers Matt Flynn* 113.1 L
1 Giants Eli Manning 102.3 W
2 @ Chiefs Alex Smith 95.0 L
12 @ Giants Eli Manning 92.9 W
8 @ Lions Matthew Stafford 91.3 L
9 Vikings Christian Ponder 82.7 W
3 Rams Sam Bradford 80.2 W
13 Raiders McGloin 73.6 W
16 @ Redskins Kirk Cousins 71.2 W
6 Redskins Robert Griffin 58.3 W
7 @ Eagles Nick Foles 46.2 W

If you take a 95 passer rating as the demarcation line between a predicted win (for an opposing passer rating below 95) and a predicted loss (opposing passer rating of 95 or higher), then the opposing passer rating was a correct predictor in 14 of 16 games, which is a remarkably strong correlation. We saw above that points scored was an accurate predictor in only 9 of 16 games (basically the equivalent of a coin flip), while points allowed was a lot better with 13 of 16.

And when you look closely at the two outlier games in the table above, you'll understand that both were very fluky games. The Lions had no business coming back from a 10-point fourth quarter deficit to win the game by one point as time was running out - but they did. Similarly, the Cowboys needed an unlikely six turnovers by the Giants to win the season opener by less than a touchdown.

When I talked to fellow BTB writer rabblerousr about the data in the table above and the implied correlation between wins and opponent passer rating, his takeaway was slightly different than mine:

To me, this suggests that the Cowboys defense was capable of making ordinary QBs look great. I'd like to see 2013's season-long passer ratings from opposing QBs, and how that broke down W/L-wise

Rabble is right of course. The Cowboys allowed a defensive passer rating of 96.0 last year, the 25th-ranked value in the league, and almost 12 points above the 84.1 league average passer rating. Which means that on average, every QB looked better against the Cowboys than he did for the rest of the season. Eli Manning is the most notable case in point: Despite throwing for an atrocious 69.4 passer rating over the entire season, he did manage games of 102.3 and 92.9 against the Cowboys, two of his best three games of the season.

Punked by Eli. Think about that.

But on to Rabble's suggestion. The next table is a repeat of the table above, except this time we're using each QB's season-long passer rating. Like before, the table is sorted by passer rating in descending order.

Week Opponent QB 2013 Passer rating Cowboys W/L
17 @ Eagles Nick Foles 119.2 L
7 @ Eagles Nick Foles 119.2 W
5 Broncos Peyton Manning 115.1 L
14 @ Bears Josh McCown 109.0 L
4 @ Chargers Philip Rivers 105.5 L
10 @ Saints Drew Brees 104.7 L
3 Rams Sam Bradford 90.9 W
2 @ Chiefs Alex Smith 89.1 L
15 Packers Matt Flynn* 88.3 L
8 @ Lions Matthew Stafford 84.2 L
6 @ Redskins Robert Griffin 82.2 W
9 Vikings Christian Ponder 77.9 W
13 Raiders Matt McGloin 76.1 W
1 @ Giants Eli Manning 69.4 W
12 @ Giants Eli Manning 69.4 W
16 @ Redskins Kirk Cousins 58.4 W
*Note: Career passer rating; not enough playing time in 2013

The season-long passer rating in this table, again with the demarcation at a 95 passer rating, is not quite as accurate a predictor as the in-game passer rating, being correct on "only" 12 of 16 games. But it does highlight some interesting points about last season.

  • Look at what were arguably the three most agonizing losses: @ Kansas City, @ Detroit and vs. Green Bay. All three QBs fell narrowly beneath the "95 rating limit." These are games the Cowboys should have won.
  • Nick Foles had a stellar season, but his Week 7 game against the Cowboys (46.2) was the exception that confirms the rule. By rights, and by the logic of this analysis, the Cowboys should have lost that game.
  • Four of the six lowest passer ratings faced by the Cowboys in 2013 were by NFC East passers. Perhaps that helps understand last year's 5-1 NFC East record a bit better.
  • Also: look at that gap between Brees and Bradford. Big difference between the good QBs and the rest of the herd...


Now that we've established the idea that the Cowboys will live and die by their defensive performance, which in turn is likely determined by the quality of the QBs they face, let's take a gander at the 2014 schedule and the quality of QBs the Cowboys will be facing. Obviously we have no idea what the 2014 passer ratings of the opposing QBs will look like, but we'll take their 2013 passer ratings as a proxy.

Week Opponent QB 2013 Passer rating
13 Eagles Nick Foles 119.2
15 @ Eagles Nick Foles 119.2
4 Saints Drew Brees 104.7
6 @ Seahawks Russell Wilson 101.2
1 49ers Colin Kaepernick 91.6
14 @ Bears Jay Cutler 89.2
16 Colts Andrew Luck 87.0
2 @ Titans Jake Locker 86.7
3 @ Rams Shaun Hill* 85.9
9 Cardinals Carson Palmer 83.9
8 Redskins Robert Griffin 82.2
17 @ Redskins Robert Griffin 82.2
5 Texans Ryan Fitzpatrick 82.0
10 @ Jaguars Chad Henne 76.5
7 Giants Eli Manning 69.4
12 @ Giants Eli Manning 69.4
*Note: Career passer rating; not enough playing time in 2013

If you look at these 2013 passer ratings, all but two QBs (Eli: 81.2; Foles: 101.0) are within 10 passer ratings points of their career averages, so it's not unrealistic to expect most of the QBs to put up similar numbers to the ones indicated above. Of course, we can't know for sure what the career trajectories of some of the younger QBs could look like, but you've got to like the Cowboys chances against a lot of these QBs - even if the pass defense turns out to be just as bad as it was last year.

Then again, as Rabble noted, one of the calling cards of last year's defense was their ability to make ordinary QBs look great. And next year's schedule is packed with ordinary QBs. That can be good for the Cowboys. Or very, very bad.

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