Throughout the Cowboys' surprising 5-1 start to the season, I've wondered how the 2016 team compares to the 2014 team that also started 5-1 and ended up with a 12-4 regular season record. Is the offense more efficient, how does this year's defense compare to the 2014 version, and are the Cowboys better or worse on special teams?
These to me are much more interesting, and much more fundamental, questions than who'll start at quarterback over the next few games.
To answer questions of that nature, it’s often a good idea to turn to an impartial observer for some clarity, which is exactly what we’re going to do today, as we turn to the fine folks at Football Outsiders (FO) and their special brand of statistical analysis. Because as luck would have it, I wrote a similar article to the one you're reading today in 2014, exactly at the time when the Cowboys stood at 5-1, which allows me to compare the data for both 5-1 teams (and we'll just pretend like 2015 never happened).
Overall team efficiency.
FO use a proprietary DVOA rating (which adjusts performance for down and distance situations and more) for their rankings. The data is also adjusted for opponent strength. Here are FO's Team Efficiency Rankings after six weeks:
|Cowboys Overall Team Efficiency (Rank)
From a team efficiency point of view, the 2016 team is better than the 2014 team, and most of that improvement is driven by the offense. After six weeks, special teams in 2016 look about as they looked in 2014, and the defense actually dropped a few spots but still remains around league average. The 2016 offense makes the most significant jump, moving up from No. 8 overall to the top spot. That's right; the Cowboys have the most efficient offense in the league right now.
How can that be, if they're only ranked eighth in points per game, third in yards per game, and fifth in passer rating, inquiring minds may want to know. Football Outsiders explain:
Conventional NFL statistics value plays based solely on their net yardage. The NFL determines the best players by adding up all their yards no matter what situations they came in or how many plays it took to get them. Now, why would they do that? Football has one objective -- to get to the end zone -- and two ways to achieve that -- by gaining yards and achieving first downs. These two goals need to be balanced to determine a player’s value or a team’s performance. All the yards in the world won’t help a team win if they all come in six-yard chunks on third-and-10.
Doing a better job of distributing credit for scoring points and winning games is the goal of DVOA, or Defense-adjusted Value Over Average. DVOA breaks down every single play of the NFL season, assigning each play a value based on both total yards and yards towards a first down. [...] Every single play run in the NFL gets a "success value" based on this system, and then that number gets compared to the average success values of plays in similar situations for all players, adjusted for a number of variables. These include down and distance, field location, time remaining in game, and the team’s lead or deficit in the game score.
But let's dig a little deeper into the offense and defense.
FO use Defense-Adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DYAR) as a measure to rank offensive skill position players. DYAR gives the value of a player's performance compared to a replacement level player at the same position, adjusts it for the game situation and opponent, and then translates that into a yardage number. Here's how the offensive skill position players have fared over the first six weeks in their respective seasons:
|Yards Above Replacement, Offense, through Week 6, 2014 & 2016
|Player||POS||DYAR||Week 6 Rank
Week 6 Rank
|*Did not meet min.attempts or receptions to qualify. Rank shows where player would rank based on DYAR|
Before we get to the quarterbacks, let's first get the other positions out of the way.
is ranked fairly low because the FO metrics are based on receiving yards, not blocking performance, and Witten's numbers as a receiver are not something to write home about this year.
AT WR, Cole Beasley has gotten a lot of receptions in Dez Bryant's absence, and has also taken over Witten's former role as the "security blanket" on 3rd downs for the QB. As a result, he's FO's number one wide receiver, as Vincent Verhei explains:
[Beasley] is tenth in catches and touchdowns, but 20th in yards, barely registering a blip on the NFL's radar. He hasn't gained more than 75 yards in a game all year. However, he has ten third-down conversions, tied with Antonio Brown for the league lead. And while he is in the top ten in with 33 catches, he has only been the target on six incomplete passes, and he is not the top 100 players in that category. When you take the modest value of his good plays, and then subtract the minute value of his bad plays, you are left with 202 DYAR -- and that, believe it or not, is the highest total in the league.
If you add up the DYAR for all three receivers for both years, you get 308 in 2014 and 311 in 2016. Uncanny. As a group, the 2016 receivers are as efficient as they were in 2014, except Beasley is doing the heavy lifting this year. Also worth noting: the much-maligned Terrance Williams is ranked No. 9 overall in both years. Not bad for the No. 2 guy in any offense.
At RB, the Cowboys have replaced Murray with Elliot and Dunbar with Morris, yet their ranking remains remarkably similar, which is in line with what we saw previously at wide receiver.
Which brings us to the quarterbacks, where Dak Prescott is ranked No. 2 overall behind only Matt Ryan, quite a bit up from where Tony Romo was ranked in 2014 over the first six weeks. Does that make Prescott the better quarterback?
If we compare their passer ratings over the first six weeks, the answer would be "No."
|Passer Rating Comparison through Week 6
Over the first six weeks of each season, Romo and Prescott put up eerily similar numbers. Their completion percentage, passing yards, YPA, and passer rating are nearly identical. Romo threw more TDs and more INTs, but that's negligible in the context of the passer rating formula.
Of course, Tony Romo went on to play the rest of the 2014 season with a 123.2 passer rating, throwing 23 TDs and four INTs in the remaining games, and would end up leading the NFL with a regular-season passer rating of 113.2. That's something that Prescott has yet to duplicate.
Still, the question remains, why does FO rank Prescott so high when he has virtually identical passing numbers to Romo, who was ranked eighth overall?
ESPN's Sharon Katz and Brian Burke (formerly of Advanced NFL Stats) offer the first part of the answer:
Traditional box score stats distort the performances [...] because they (1) fail to account for all of the ways a quarterback can affect a game, (2) don’t put plays into the proper context (a 5-yard gain on second-and-5 is very different from a 5-yard gain on third-and-10), and 3) don’t acknowledge that a quarterback has teammates who affect each play and should also get credit for everything that happens on the field.
ESPN's Total QBR includes a lot more than the traditional boxscore stats, and instead tries to include all of a quarterback’s contributions to winning, including how he impacts the game on passes, rushes, turnovers and penalties. Total QBR, much like the Expected Points concept, looks at every single play, adds context (e.g. down-and-distance, score differential, win probability etc.) and then allocates credit to the quarterback and his teammates to produce a clearer measure of quarterback efficiency.
Here's what the Total QBR for both QBs looked like for the first six games.
|Total QBR Comparison through Week 6
|Player||Week 1||Week 2||Week 3||Week 4||Week 5||Week 6||Total|
But Prescott also has an additional advantage: he hasn't played a stinker yet like Romo did in the season opener against the 49ers in 2014. For the entire 2014 season, including the stinker against the 49ers, Romo had a QBR of 83.6, which again is uncannily similar to what Prescott has over six weeks - except Prescott hasn't had a stinker yet, a situation that is bound to change the longer he plays.
The second part of the answer why Prescott looks better than Romo in the FO numbers has to do with the O-line. Even though the starters on the O-line are currently exactly the same players as they were in 2014, FO see a marked improvement in the performance of the O-line over the first six weeks of the year.
|Offensive Line (Rank)
|Run Blocking||Pass Protection|
Ezekiel Elliott is running behind the best O-line in the league right now, and Dak Prescott is throwing with significantly improved pass protection. In 2014, the O-line was slow to round into form (they would finish the season No. 1 in run blocking and No. 16 in pass protection), just like Tony Romo needed some time to get up to speed (but would finish the season as the No. 1 QB in Total QBR).
When we compare two seasons, we naturally like to compare players at the same position with each other - how good is Ezekiel Elliott compared to DeMarco Murray, is Dak Prescott or Tony Romo the better QB, is Cole Beasley more efficient than Dez Bryant? But that type of approach completely leaves out the impact the offensive line has on each of those positions.
In a recent article for USA Today, Stephen Ruiz argued that the NFL is no longer a quarterback league but an offensive line league.
The NFL is supposedly a quarterback league. That’s why teams are handing out big money deals to serviceable passers. But maybe the success the 5-1 Cowboys are enjoying this season will convince teams to take a new approach. A great quarterback can take an average offense and make it good. A great offensive line, however, can take a flawed quarterback and turn him into a star.
A quarterback’s most precious resource is time in the pocket. The trait that separates the elite from the rest is the ability to process information quickly. Let’s say a quarterback like Brady can make his reads in, say, two seconds, and Prescott needs, say, four seconds. That two-second difference is a big deal if the two are playing behind the same offensive line.
Now give Prescott a great offensive line and put Brady behind a suspect line. The gap between those two players is closed considerably. That’s how players like Prescott and Carr are putting up Brady-like numbers this season.
If you want to know why the 2016 offense is better than the 2014 offense, you don't need to look any further than the offensive line.
The popularity of fantasy football means fans have gotten used to judging players based on how much they help fantasy teams win and lose, not how much they help real teams win and lose. There are no fancy stats to tell you how good the Cowboys O-line is, you'll simply have to trust your own eyes on this one.
After assembling the greatest offensive line of the 1990s that paved the way to three Super Bowl titles, the Dallas Cowboys are back on top again with their current O-line.
The 2016 Cowboys offense leads the league in first downs, leads the league in plays per drive, leads the league in time of possession, is second in the league in third-down conversions, is second in the league in rushing yards per game, and has the second-lowest percentage of punts and 3-and-outs.
The offensive line is what makes all of that possible.