It has been a tough year for Dallas Cowboys fans. We went into the 2015 season with such great hopes after the playoff run of the previous season, only to see them dashed almost immediately as key injuries gutted the team. The loss of Dez Bryant, Tony Romo, and to a lesser extent Lance Dunbar rendered the offense largely impotent. On defense, the injuries to Orlando Scandrick and the underappreciated Terrell McClain also caused big problems. We are all familiar with the results. Now, those hopes are rekindled with the prospect of better health for most of the injured stars.
Will better health be enough to get Dallas back to the playoffs? Offensively, it should. Romo and Bryant alone make the team a much more potent threat, and the addition of Ezekiel Elliott behind what is widely considered the best line in the NFL can only add to the potential. Defensively, there are still much greater questions that have to be answered, and once again, key players are going to be suspended. But even with that, there are some reasons to think that things may improve enough to make the season a success. And there is a real chance that the defense doesn’t need to improve as much as it just needs to avoid any appreciable decline.
Drafting Elliott is a clear indication that the team is trying to return to the model that worked so well two seasons ago, when DeMarco Murray ran with such abandon. What is interesting to look at is how the offense and defense worked together that year. The O put up 29.2 points a game, just 1.2 less than the top scoring offense in the league, the Green Bay Packers, and almost twice what the last-place team managed. That was the fifth-best average in the league. The defense was much more pedestrian, ranking fifteenth in the NFL. But that translated to 22 points a game. Dallas had an average points differential of just over a touchdown in their favor. That is how you get to 12 wins in a season.
2015 saw a dramatic decline in offensive output, with the Cowboys only managing a mere 17.2 points per game, the second-worst of all teams. This was the one number that truly indicates how bad the performance was with the backup quarterbacks. But what is not as well known is that the defense was nearly as effective for the season, despite the much discussed lack of sacks and takeaways. They only yielded 23.4 points per game, just 1.4 more than the previous year. That was a decline of only one spot in overall ranking, to sixteenth. This was despite the stress of the frequent three and outs, which were the real killer for the team.
Saltiest Defenses in 2015 NFL after their offense went 3 and OUT: KC,DEN,NE,BAL,OAK,PIT,CAR. Worst: NYG,DAL,IND,CHI,CLE,MIN #Qscores— Andy Guyader (@aguyader17) June 29, 2016
It should be noted that the Dallas D actually handled the turnovers by their own offense rather well.
Salty Defenses in 2015 after a Turnover by their OFF: STL, DAL, SEA, CAR, KC, NYG, CLE and NYJ. Yes the Browns DEF is stingy after TOs— Andy Guyader (@aguyader17) June 29, 2016
Although the defense did show it could handle sudden adversity, the constant grind of having to go right back out after a disappointing and short series by the offense just was something they could not handle. The result was a negative point differential of just less than a touchdown a game, which of course was the path to 12 losses on the year. It is not mere coincidence that a swing from about a touchdown advantage to an almost identical deficit resulted in an exact reversal of the win-loss record.
The offense is poised for a tremendous rebound. And the defense, despite the lingering questions about the pass rush, the secondary, and now the linebacking corps with the ten-game suspension for Rolando McClain, looks very much like the units of the past two years, which were very consistent. Yes, they need to generate more takeaways, but there is always an element of chance to those, and regression to the mean alone should result in a few more interceptions and forced fumbles. The return of Scandrick and putting Byron Jones full time at free safety also should help in the secondary. The line needs to get to the quarterback more, and the Cowboys are going to have to manufacture some sacks without what are thought to be their two best pass rushers, DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory, for the first four games. But that is not unfamiliar territory for them, as they had to wait on Greg Hardy to sit out his suspension last year. And Tyrone Crawford, probably the best lineman not facing suspension, is expected to be healthy after playing most of the year with an injured shoulder that effectively had him playing with one arm. They also were without Rolando McClain for four games, and have already gotten a head start on figuring out how to handle his absence. His failure to show for OTAs let them get extra work for the likely candidates to fill in for him.
The best reason to hope the defense will be good enough is that, despite all the negatives last year, they were still better in points surrendered than half the teams in the league. It is very rare for an NFL team to have both their offense and defense among the top units. The formula from 2014 is more typical: One dominant unit and one average one combining to make a strong overall team throughout the game. We all expect the offense to hold up its end. And despite all the concerns, the Dallas defense is the very definition of average already in the one number that really matters, points. Outside of Rolando McClain, there were no significant losses on the roster, especially if the team can survive the first four weeks of the season and get Lawrence and Gregory back in play. If some of the new additions and young, returning players can make positive contributions to the line play, the defense may be improved. It is certainly unlikely to be a top ten unit, but as 2014 shows, it just has to be good enough. And holding the other teams to 22 or 23 points a game is exactly that. A widely used rule of thumb is that 24 points is the number to focus on. A team that scores more than that is likely to win, and less leads more often than not to a loss. Keeping yourself on the high side while limiting the opponent to the low end on average is a very reliable formula for success in the NFL.
The plan is viable, although nothing is guaranteed for anyone in the league. The only real concern at this point is health, and that is something every NFL team has to sweat out every season. In essence, each franchise makes a bet with how they build their roster. The Cowboys clearly are betting that the defense will be good enough to provide sufficient support to an offense that should be among the most productive this year. Now we get to see whether it pays off, but the odds do not look as bad as you might think.