Every year, Football Outsiders produces their yearly almanac for the upcoming NFL season. Recently they released their Football Outsiders Almanac 2014. You can get the PDF version here, or you can go to Amazon for the paperback version. The editors at FO graciously gave us a press copy of the almanac for review and naturally we went straight to the Dallas Cowboys chapter to see what they think of the 'Boys. Well, it was disappointing for Cowboys fans, FO just doesn't have much optimism about the season. They have our mean wins pegged at 6.9 and give us about a 20% chance at making the playoffs. After reading through the Cowboys chapter, we got a chance to ask some questions of author Scott Kacsmar.
The first question was about the inordinate number of close games the Cowboys have been involved in under Jason Garrett, and the fact that we've had some pretty gut-wrenching collapses in the fourth quarter.
Blogging The Boys: You noted the number of close games the Cowboys have played in under Jason Garrett, and how they have lost some huge leads in the fourth quarter, games they should have won. Do you feel that if the Cowboys were to run the ball more and try to kill more clock in those situations, they would would end up closing out more games with wins? Or do you think something else is at play here?
FO (Scott Kacsmar): I think this happens too often to Dallas for it to be pinpointed to one major root cause. The Cowboys have lost close games in just about every way possible. The defense has had lapses on the final drive, such as in New England (2011) and Detroit (2013). The offense has turned the ball over to set up the opponent's winning score (2011 Jets and 2013 Broncos). Dan Bailey missed a couple of huge field goals in 2011-12. Dez Bryant just had a hand out of bounds on what would have been a game-winning touchdown against the 2012 Giants. There have been some conservative coaching decisions that allowed for the opponent to have the opportunity to drive for the win. When Kyle Orton needed to hit a few passes to set up a game-winning field goal in Week 17 last year, we know what happened on the first play of that drive.
It's different things, but the troubling part is when Dallas' best players are making the big mistakes. We know about a few Tony Romo interceptions, but Bailey has been a great kicker outside of those few misses against the Cardinals, Giants and Ravens in past seasons. Bryant's a great receiver, but he dropped a two-point conversion in Baltimore (2012) and dropped a deep pass in Kansas City last year that could have turned that game. Even Tyron Smith had a holding penalty in Detroit last year that otherwise would have left Matthew Stafford without enough time to realistically pull off the drive he did. Some might want to chalk all of this up to coaching and discipline, but at some point the guys just have to make the plays they're expected to make.
Based on my research on the four-minute offense, no team has really perfected the art of closing out the game on offense (preferably with the run) with a one-score lead. Half the time the team ends up punting the ball back, opening themselves up to the crushing drive the Lions pulled off on Dallas last year. So I don't think running the ball more would have helped the Cowboys much, because that's usually not their key to success anyway. In the 2012 opener against the Giants, Romo put that game away with a third-down pass, denying Eli Manning any shot at another game-winning drive. That's usually what you need to do, because defenses expect the run in those obvious situations. However, with some of the past criticism Dallas has received (namely the Green Bay game), it's hard for Garrett to call passes for Romo on first or second down with the fear of another catastrophic result.
I think if more teams treated the four-minute offense as a two-minute drill where a first down or two wins the game, then we'd see more success and fewer late-game comebacks.
Next up, Kacsmar didn't really like the decision to draft Zack Martin. We thought that was odd considering how much flak FO has given the Cowboys for inept offensive lines in the past. So we wanted to know what gives. Ultimately, it turns out different writers have done the Cowboys chapters over the years, so Kacsmar notes that while explaining his objections to the Martin pick.
BTB: The Cowboys take a little bashing in your review for drafting and creating what should be a top-quality offensive line. Their offensive line has been something they've been skewered for in the past.
FOA 2011: "A big reason Football Outsiders was relatively tepid about the Cowboys last year was concern about the age of the offensive line. Well, the Cowboys offensive line regressed in just about every conceivable way in 2010 (ALY, Power Situations, and Stuff Rate)."
FOA 2012: "This team will spend high draft picks on pass rushers, they'll trade up for corners, they'll deal for wideouts like Roy Williams in the middle of the year, but with the exception of recent first-rounder Tyron Smith, it seems like they've consciously avoided investing resources in their offensive line."
FOA 2013: "Despite the criticism for the Travis Frederick pick, you have to give the Cowboys credit for at least trying to address obvious issues on a line that had been by turns ignored and badly stocked for years."
Now that they've addressed the line, why not give them credit?
FO (Scott Kacsmar): Well I guess that's the beauty of using multiple writers over the years, and you know what they say about opinions. Personally, I'm not a big fan of using premium resources on interior linemen. I won't get into a huge essay about it, but I don't believe the variation in performance of guards or centers is great enough to use first-round picks. Leonard Davis was considered a bust at tackle for six years, but he went to Dallas, moved to right guard and was suddenly a Pro Bowl player. That's hard to buy.
If you want a run-heavy offense, then you need a better line, but that's not what Dallas is built for these days. I believe if you have a really good quarterback like Romo, then you don't need to focus on the interior line that much when there are more important positions to fix. Romo's sack rate has been fairly consistent with a tight range of 3.2 to 6.5 percent. The season it was the lowest (2010) was the year he broke his collarbone. Injuries can happen on any play. The play in which Romo came up very hobbled against Washington last year was actually a blown block by Tyron Smith, who is the best lineman on the team. I've thrown Smith under the bus twice now in this questionnaire, but it just goes to show how even your best assets can negatively impact your season with one play.
The Smith pick was great to get a franchise left tackle, but I think loading up with Travis Frederick and Zack Martin was overkill. It's nothing personal against those players, but I think the Cowboys had more pressing needs. We're not too excited about the safety position, but that could have been improved with a pick like Eric Reid (2013 draft) or Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Romo just needed someone to snap him the ball properly (sorry, Phil Costa). Historically, the greatest centers in NFL history were not first-round picks, which is very unusual. The guy on pace to be the best first-round center ever is Nick Mangold. Maybe if the Jets had a good quarterback we'd see a better offense, but having Mangold and D'Brickashaw Ferguson did little to change their success. One of the few great lines to recently have a big impact was in Kansas City a decade ago (2002-05) with Willie Roaf, Brian Waters and Will Shields. However, like Dallas, that team didn't have a defense and never won a playoff game together.
Top three needs of a team should be a head coach, a quarterback and a defense. Building a great offensive line is a pipe dream in the salary cap era. Those who think they have the best assets usually don't have anything worth protecting, like Cleveland with Joe Thomas and Alex Mack. The 2008 Steelers and 2013 Seahawks won Super Bowls with pretty lousy lines and their quarterbacks under a lot of pressure. They still won because they had the No. 1 defense, and the quarterback delivered when he had to. Romo hasn't had a top 10 defense since 2009, which is not coincidentally the year he won his only playoff game. A quarterback's best friend is not his offensive line or running game, it's a great defense. It's hard to have one if you're taking guards and centers with first-round picks.
Whether you agree with that or not, that is solid reasoning from Kacsmar. Credit given.
In the review, there was a line that read: All-time Cowboys sack leader DeMarcus Ware is now gone; he was successfully able to transition to 4-3 end last season, but the Cowboys felt they had to release the 32-year-old Ware because injury issues and a high salary. We took a little issue with the idea that it was a successful transition.
BTB: As Cowboys fans, we're a little curious as to how you term DeMarcus Ware's conversion to a 4-3 end as a success? He had a career low in sacks and tackles, had exactly one sack over the last six games and was never even close to the force he was in a 3-4 defense. What did you see from Ware that made his 2013 campaign a success?
FO (Scott Kacsmar): We cannot overstate the importance of a player's health to his performance. It's just not possible to be the same guy when you're playing hurt, and last year was the most banged up Ware has ever been in his career. He missed three full games after never missing one in his first eight seasons.
A lack of playing time (236 fewer snaps from 2012) alone explains some of the drop in sacks. We charted Ware with 24 quarterback hurries, which is two more than his total in 2012. He was still getting pressure, but he wasn't finishing as often as we're used to seeing. Play enough years as a pass-rusher and you're bound to have a year like that, especially if you're not 100 percent. His success against the run was nearly identical to 2012. I think a healthy Ware will be a good player in Denver, he'll be missed in Dallas, but I understand the reasons (salary and age) for why he's moved on.
Could part of the problem with a banged up Ware in 2013 be that his body-type is just not meant to be a full-time 4-3 end? That's a debate that could be had, but here we'll just say that in our evaluation, 2013 wasn't really a success. Teams were actually blocking Ware one-on-one, and that is not what he's was paid for.
Naturally, FO was very down on the Cowboys defense for 2014. We wanted to know what they thought of some of our research about teams the year after they are the worst defense in the league.
BTB: Our research shows that over the past 19 years of the teams that finished last in defense based on yards given up, 18 of them improved the next season, and 16 of them had better overall team W/L records. The average increase in wins for those 16 teams was 3.25. Could that trend be applied to Dallas in 2014?
FO (Scott Kacsmar): Well I think you gave us something worth looking into here. I would hope those teams mostly improved, because it's hard to do any worse. The problem for Dallas is there haven't been many positive changes from last year. They have a new defensive coordinator by title, but technically Rod Marinelli was already there last year and it's still going to be a system like Monte Kiffin's Tampa-2 defense. I don't think anyone can argue the roster has gotten better with Ware, Sean Lee and Jason Hatcher no longer present. Rookie DeMarcus Lawrence will miss valuable time with a broken foot. Henry Melton won't single-handedly improve the front seven. We still have more questions than answers in the secondary, especially for guys like Morris Claiborne and J.J. Wilcox.
We've trashed the defense so much this offseason that they may surprise us and finish a respectable 22nd or so this year. Not the worst, but certainly not good enough to power this team to 11-5. If the Cowboys go 11-5 with an above-average defense, a few things might have to happen.
· Jason Garrett deserves an extension.
· Tony Romo should win his first MVP award.
· Rod Marinelli will be known for something more than "0-16 Detroit"
But really, the best hope is a few more turnovers, some key stops when the team needs it most and a couple of breakout seasons from young players to make the team feel better about 2015.
Finally, we just wanted to know a little about how good was George Selvie's performance in 2013.
BTB: The Cowboys will need George Selvie to build upon his performance in '13 and with a full offseason (instead of jumping off his couch to get another shot in the NFL) it seems there is a good probability to his improvement. His '13 statistics seem pretty solid, but how do they compare (to FO's) averages for other top strong-side defensive ends?
FO (Scott Kacsmar): Selvie was a surprising bright spot on the defense last year. We use stats like Stops and Defeats to better contextualize tackles and impact plays so that guys aren't getting credit for tackling someone 10 yards down the field on third-and-4. Selvie had 37 Stops and 18 Defeats. That puts him in very similar company in 2013 with Mario Williams (36 Stops and 21 Defeats) and Cameron Jordan (36 Stops and 19 Defeats). Selvie also had 21 quarterback hurries to go along with his 7.0 sacks. His run metrics weren't bad. In most of our stats, Selvie ranked among the top 24 defensive ends last year. That makes him above average, but he'll need to be even better this season for Dallas' sake.