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Football Outsiders: "Cowboys are built to make ordinary running backs look good"

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The new Football Outsiders Annual is available so we decided to read the Dallas Cowboys section. When we finished, we had a few questions for the gang over at FO and they graciously answered them.

Blogging The Boys: The Dallas section was primarily focused on the offensive line, but the biggest chance for improvement is on defense. How much do you think the team has improved on that side of the ball?

Football Outsiders: I think the pass rush will improve. Greg Hardy's suspension was in limbo for much of the writing process, making it hard to make a strong assertion of what role he would play. Knowing that he will be available for most of the season makes a difference. Sean Lee's return is also a big deal, and he will be an outstanding Will in the Cowboys system. The Cowboys won't have a great defense, but it will be pretty good, and there is synergy with the offensive style. A conservative Cover-2 complements a ball-control offense well.

BTB: What is the real impact of the line on the running backs? You clearly think the Cowboys did the right thing in assembling a very strong and young offensive line, but is there any quantifiable measurement of how teams have done with that approach to the ground game? Denver seemed to do this for years. Is Dallas built the same way?

FO: The Cowboys are built to make ordinary running backs look good and very good running backs Offensive Players of the Year. A lot was made about the whole DeMarco Murray "Meat on the Bone" talk. I think our stats divided up the credit for Murray's season well: the Cowboys ranked first in adjusted line yards, but Murray led the league in DYAR. It's not too much of a stretch to say the line can give any decent NFL running back the first 1,000 yards and the rest is up to him.

BTB: How important is coaching continuity? Dallas has the same top four (HC, OC, DC and STC) this year and most of the rest of the staff is also back.

FO: Continuity is huge this year because sources have told me how methodical Jason Garrett is: he develops players slowly and definitely takes a long view. Switching from 3-4 to 4-3 a few years ago really set the Cowboys back. Looking at the defense now, there are positions where the player may not be superior, but he's a strong system fit, often with some time in the defense. That's where stability supports scheme.

BTB: How do you treat a situation like the Cowboys had last year where all the predictions were for a poor season, and they had a great season? Is there anyway to figure how the statistical models were wrong, does it affect how you treat the team the following year?

FO: Aaron Schatz is always tweaking the models to account for bad predictions, particularly ones that come in "clusters" (teams of similar types that are weighted improperly). I think one problem with evaluating the 2014 Cowboys came from underestimating the impact of Frederick and Martin, which everyone did. Another factor was the strange configuration of the Cowboys injuries: they had great health on offense (where they had tons of talent) but terrible health on the defensive front seven (where most players besides Lee were pretty replaceable). We had a team that had roughly league-average health overall, but the injuries lined up in such a way that the offense could be dominant, both from a scoring and clock eating standpoint, to reduce pressure on the defense.

BTB: If you had to pick one indispensable Cowboys players besides Tony Romo, who would it be?

FO: Frederick. Tyron Smith is more talented, Zach Martin may be to, but Frederick's role in both run blocking and pass protection can't be overstated.

We appreciate the time, Football Outsiders. You can pick up the annual here.

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