As the 2015 season wrapped up, few had any illusions as to the nature of the Dallas Cowboys offense. The word "putrid" comes to mind. Nonetheless, painful as it is, the time has come to move on to a statistical analysis of the 2015 Dallas Cowboys offensive performance and see what lessons can be learned.
Dallas finished with the 9th best rushing attack in the league, with a healthy 118.1 yards per game. While some still buy into the idea that DeMarco Murray's absence led to a collapse of the Dallas running game, the evidence does not support this. Dallas continued to favor a strong running game and ran 43.5% of the time. On a per rush basis, Dallas was also ranked quite highly, tied for 5th in the league. They were fairly low in rushing touchdowns, with 8, at 21st overall, but as we will see, Dallas was pretty low at touchdowns in general. They were 4th in the NFL in generating 20+ yard runs and 11th in generating first downs by run. All fairly healthy, statistically. The Cowboys fumbled 7 times on running plays, which was dead in the middle for the NFL, tied with two other teams for 15th.
Nonetheless, there is a strong push, once again, to spend draft capital on a running back. Darren McFadden's performance and cost suggest that draft pick might better be spent elsewhere.
In a surprise explosion in week 17, the Dallas Cowboys passing attack lifted itself all the way to 27th in the league with an anemic 216.9 yards per game. They were tied for 29th in passing touchdowns and were one of only two teams to have fewer touchdowns than interceptions thrown (the Denver Broncos were the other). The Broncos, in fact, were the only team that threw more interceptions than the Cowboys, indicating that Dallas quarterbacking (including Tony Romo, by the way) contributed mightily to the massive turnover deficit (worst in the NFL, in case you didn't remember that). There's a common idea that Dallas didn't get the ball down the field, but they seemed better at this than passing overall, ranking 21st in yards per attempt, tied with two other teams. A look at explosive plays tells a different story, however, as Dallas was 31st in 20+ yard passes and dead last in 40+ gains. The 63.3% completion rate was right in the middle at 15th, but the first down percentage was back down to 22nd, indicating that the passing game hurt them in sustaining drives. Where the Dallas inefficiency at passing really stands out is passer rating. In a league where passing has gotten so easy that the NFL average passer rating is approaching 90, Dallas managed just a 76.6, good for 30th place.
The potent rushing attack helped Dallas to 22nd overall in yards per game. Surprisingly, they managed 14th overall in yards per play. Despite the impression that Dallas was a successful ball control team, Dallas was 29th overall in plays per game. This indicates Dallas' time of possession advantage was much more about running the play-clock down than sustaining drives and gives the lie to the idea that the Dallas defense was not tested by being placed onto the field more often than it should've been. This is supported by a huge drop in 3rd down percentage from being a league leader to 27th overall. It's also corroborated by a quick fall down the time of possession ranks. At one point Dallas was ranked quite high in time of possession, but finished the year a mere 13th. Ranking 23rd overall in fumbles lost, Dallas was particularly adept at not recovering their own, losing 61.7% of their fumbles. The Carolina Panthers were the only team worse than Dallas at recovering their own fumbles, but made up for it by not fumbling much to begin with (they had one more fumble, total, than Dallas had fumbles lost). But when you add it all up, only the San Francisco 49ers were worse at scoring than Dallas, who had 17.2 points per game. That kind of output will lose you a lot of football games.
So what does it all point to? The not surprising conclusion is that if you don't get in the end zone, you don't win many games. While the Broncos and Panthers will be lining up next week, indicating that a strong defense is still key to winning championships, you have to be able to score to win, and Dallas, quite simply, couldn't. The red zone numbers are downright scary. The average NFL team scored a touchdown on 58% of their red zone drives. Dallas 45.5%. That's roughly 3/4 as much, or Dallas scoring 3 touchdowns for every 4 scored by the NFL average team in that situation. Add to that a ridiculous 9.1% turnover rate (all interceptions), a 50% increase over the NFL average 6.1%, and there you have it in a nutshell. A team that flops in the red zone is a team that goes... well... 4-12.