For several years now, I have written about the most important positions in the current pass-happy iteration of the NFL: QB, WR, LT, pass rusher and CB (RB used to be the sixth but, with this increasingly a passing league, it is no longer so). I've deemed these the Positions of Great Import (POGI); our good friend KD Drummond has tagged them the "money five." Whatever the nomenclature, these are the positions at which teams, to be successful, must have good-to-dominant players.
As statistics have made increasingly clear, to win in the NFL, a team must pass and defend the pass well; the rest is gravy. In a pass-happy league where everything, as Ron Jaworski is always quick to remind us, is about match-ups, it's precisely these positions that are involved in the match-ups that have the most influence over a game's outcome: quarterback and receiver vs. corner; left tackle vs. weakside pass rusher (and, by extension, any OT vs. any DE/ OLB). When your squad has players who can dominate match-ups at the POGI, it becomes difficult for the opposition to pass or to defend the pass.
If we can accept that it's these matchups that most impact a teams success, then it stands to reason that a successful organization will be the one that acquires a "blue-chip" player at as many POGI as possible. This is no easy task, however; these positions are routinely over-drafted; as QBs, CBs, WRs, athletic OTs, and pass rushers rise, OGs, safeties, LBs, RBs and TEs fall. This makes it all the more impressive that, as the Cowboys have built their current roster, they have assembled difference-makers at the money five.
Consider: In 2014, they boasted Pro-Bowlers or Pro Bowl-caliber players at QB (Dez Bryant), LT ( ). Moreover, they spent the offseason (my, how they did spend) upgrading the fifth POGI, adding the best available 4-3 DEs in both free agency and the draft, respectively, in Thus armed, Dallas went into 2015 prepared to do battle in the aerial circus that is today's NFL.), WR (
To get a clearer sense of how good these players are at their respective positions, I'll turn to - who else - our resident statsmeister, O.C.C., and his annual end-of-season player rankings. Every year, as the season ends (and the gents at Pro Football Focus release their final position rankings), The Cool One seeks to quantify and assess the recently concluded season by looking at how the individual Cowboys players have performed relative to other players at their positions across the NFL. To do that, he converts their PFF rankings into positional percentile scores, so that all positions are rated on a scale of 1-100.
For the purposes of this exercise, Cool breaks the Cowboys roster down by quintile, so we can see which players are in the top 20% of all NFLers at their position, who falls between the 61st and 80th percentile, etc. I'll borrow his handy-dandy chart to illustrate what I'm talking about and because it has useful colors:
|100-81||Blue-Chip Cowboys Players
|80-61||NFL starter quality at position
|60-41||Average to slightly below average player
Over the course of the years that O.C.C. has been doing this, an increasingly high amount of players on Dallas' roster have delivered top performances. In 2011 and 2012, he notes, the Cowboys had a combined total of nine blue-chip players. In 2013, that number increased to eight. Last season, they had twelve guys who ranked in the top 20% at their position. Even more impressive - and impactful on games - is that players at four of the five POGI fell into that category. Check it:
|2014 Cowboys - Blue-chip POGI
How about the unrepresented POGI, defensive end? Well, the Cowboys' top-rated DE was Jeremy Mincey, who finished 16th among 59 4-3 defensive ends in PFF's rankings, which placed him in the 73rd percentile. While that's certainly solid, the Cowboys realized that they needed at least one game-changer at this position if they were going to compete against teams that had blue-chip offensive POGI. Exhibit A supporting this thesis was the fact that a defense that was playing very well in the season's final month struggled to affect a gimpy Aaron Rodgers in Dallas' playoff loss.
With this in mind, they went out and got Greg Hardy. Because he didn't play in 2014, we have to go back to 2013 to ascertain The Kraken's positional ranking. Here's what we found:
Yep, another blue-chipper. In the spring, when Hardy was added to the roster, in other words, the Cowboys boasted top-quintile players at every one of the five most impactful positions. It's hard to imagine that a team could put itself in a better position to succeed and to defend its NFC East title. As a way of demonstrating the veracity of such a statement, let's take a look at how they stacked up against their division rivals at these five positions:
|NYG||Odell Beckham Jr.||WR||793||3/110||97|
Note: I had to go back to 2013 for PFF ratings for Sam Bradford and Greg Hardy. Both players, as well as Philadelphia cornerback Byron Maxwell, played for other teams the last full season played.
As the above chart makes clear, going into the season, the Cowboys were the only team in the division with five top-quintile players at the game's most important positions. The next closest team was the Giants, with three. Philly had two and Ryan Kerrigan was the 'Skins' lone blue-chipper. Of course, four of these five Cowboys POGI have missed parts or all of the season...
And this is precisely what makes the Cowboys' injuries in 2015 different than the ones that hit the team in 2012 and '13. Then, you may recall, they suffered injuries to position groups (defensive line) or particular areas (interior defense). Yet they still had their elite players at the most important positions. In 2012, Dallas missed six POGI starts, with five of those from Orlando Scandrick, all at the end of the season. In '13, they missed four; DeMarcus Ware missed three games and, of course, Romo missed the season finale against the Eagles.
In 2015, counting the four games Hardy missed due to his suspension, the Cowboys POGI's have missed 21 of their possible 35 starts. That's a cool 60%. To make matters worse, their replacements are anything but blue-chippers; we've already seen that Mincey is a 73 percentile player; Matt Cassel and Terrance Williams rank in the 34th percentile; Corey White's 2014 placed him in the third percentile. Instead of a field of blue above, these POGI players would give the Cowboys a bunch of orange (underperformer) and red (as in flag).
If we can accept that it's these positions that have the greatest opportunity - and, given the Cowboys' POGI's recent level of play, the very real capacity - to make the plays that influence a game's outcome, then we don't have to look any further for the yawning gulf between preseason expectations and in-season results than the precipitous drop-off between between blue and orange.