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Cowboys vs. Giants: Picking Up The Pieces, By The Numbers

Fire the coaches! Cut the players! Churn The Roster! Send A Message! - It's hard to avoid hyperbole on overreaction Monday, but we take a dispassionate look at the Giants game anyway. By the numbers, of course.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Overreaction rules in the NFL, especially in the social media era.

Fresh off a season-opening loss, this week's headlines will be dominated by knee-jerk commentary about how the Cowboys have the worst defense in the league, how the offensive play-calling is atrocious, why Jason Garrett should be fired, why Jerry Jones is Satan's Spawn, or why the Cowboys need to draft a DE, a LB, and a WR, all preferably in the first round.

As a fanbase, we have a tendency to overreact to everything. After a win we're booking tickets for the Super Bowl, a loss and we want to fire every coach on the staff, and just as precaution, fire everybody else who was ever on the Cowboys staff in the past, just to make sure.

Overreaction Monday is an actual thing in the NFL, where a win produces unbridled optimism, and where a loss results in a state of apocalyptic panic. In Cowboys Nation, many fans have been in a permanent state of overreaction for the last 20 seasons, interrupted only by the occasional playoff appearance.

But that's not what we're about today. Today we take a dispassionate look at the Giants game. By the numbers, of course.

-40.9: The difference in passer rating between the Giants (110.3) and the Cowboys (69.4). We know that passer rating differential (PRD), is one of the stats most closely linked to winning in the NFL. And one of the interesting things about PRD is that it can be plugged into a very simple formula to predict win totals in the NFL. The PRD formula (Projected Wins = PRD*0.16+8) has shown a fairly close correlation with the Cowboys' actual wins over the last few years, as the table below illustrates.

Dallas Cowboys Passer Rating Differential, 2009-2015
Year 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015
OPR 97.6 90.4 100.1 91.3 95.7 110.9 76.4
DPR 83.5
PRD 14.1
Projected Wins 10.3
Actual Wins 11

The mean absolute error (the average of the absolute deviation between the projected and the actual win total) is quite low at 0.9 for the Cowboys over the last seven years using our little formula, a strong indication that the formula is a good projection tool.

So what does this mean for the 2016 Cowboys? Sadly, the Cowboys offense and defense last night played like a two-win team.

20%: Prescott's completion rate on deep throws (passes of more than 15 yards downfield). It's not like Prescott was dinking and dunking it all night; he attempted 10 deep throws but only connected on two. Eli Manning attempted just four such throws and completed all of them.

59%: The Cowboys' third down efficiency on offense is one of the highlights of the game. The Cowboys were 10-of-17 on third down, which should bode well for the rest of the season. Unfortunately, almost half of those situations, eight to be exact, saw the offense facing 3rd-and-9 or longer. And the defense didn't help much by allowing a 50% third down conversion rate.

83: Dez Bryant caught one pass for eight yards last night. In all but one of his 85 regular season games, Bryant either had more receptions or more yards. Only once, in 2010, did he fail to catch a single pass.

75: Total number of plays on offense last night. That's the second-highest total of the last two years, only in the win against the Eagles on 12-14-14 did they run one more play. It's easy to point at the inability to score a touchdown or the lack of big plays as reasons why this offense isn't up to snuff, but the offense was humming.

45: Number of pass attempts by Dak Prescott in his first NFL game, tied for the second-highest total in the NFL for a rookie in first NFL game. Only Sam Bradford in his 2010 debut threw more often (55 times). Asking your rookie QB to air it out is not a winning proposition: The 20 rookies with the highest number of pass attempts in their first NFL game are a combined 2-18.

24: Number of first downs. The highest total the Cowboys achieved over the last two years was 27, which they achieved three times. 24 first downs is not far off. But while we are fairly certain that the absence of a first downs on offense is a negative (the Cowboys are 2-9 when they had 18 first downs or less) a lot of first downs may be more indicative of a short-play offense than a winning offense (Cowboys are just 4-4 when they had 25 or more first downs).

33%: Three trips into the red zone and only one TD to show for it. That's simply not winning football. The Giants were 3-for-3, and regardless of all the other stats, that was the difference in this game.

+1: The Cowboys' turnover differential. Incidentally, the interception led to the only Cowboys TD of the afternoon. Without the interceptions, you'd have watched a field goal festival.

5.0: The Cowboys' YPA on the night, a cool 2.4 yards lower than they allowed Eli Manning to throw. The difference between offensive and defensive yards per pass attempt correlates strongly to wins and losses; usually, a YPA differential of -2 is thought to be pretty bad; a YPA of -3 or more is a sure sign that you were dominated on both sides of the ball. The -2.4 figure suggests the Cowboys were outplayed where it mattered the most: in the passing game.

0: Dak Prescott's interceptions, which is pretty remarkable for a rookie in his first game who's asked to throw 45 times. At least that puts all the talk about the vanilla defenses he faced in the preseason to rest.

0: Sacks given up by the Cowboys: Prescott was officially hit only three times in the game, and was sacked a grand total of zero times. The Cowboys' gameplan with a lot of inside runs and passes to the outside kept the Giants blitzers at bay and Prescott clean, but it also helped keep the Giants in the game. After 30 minutes of play, the Cowboys had a staggering 22:04 time of possession, but they were looking up at the scoreboard and seeing a 13-9 Giants lead.

.600: the percentage of Cowboys plays that were passes. The Cowboys' 75 plays were neatly distributed with a 45-30 pass-run distribution. In 2014, the Cowboys ran on 50.1% of their snaps, and the Cowboys invested their No. 4 overall pick to make sure they could have a repeat performance - or so the popular story goes.

But nothing goes out the window faster than the run game when you trade field goals for TDs and end up trailing. The Cowboys were a perfectly balanced 19-19 pass/run in the first half, but then became a very predictable 26-11 in the second half. The Giants defense adjusted, and where Prescott was able to complete 74% of his passes in the first half, that percentage almost halved to 42% in the second half. Here are Prescott's numbers by half:

1st half
14 19 134 74 7.1 0 0 92.9
2nd half
11 26 93 42 3.6 0 0 52.2
Total 25 45 227 56 5.0 0 0 69.4

Prescott looked like a stud in the first half, but the inability to score, coupled with a largely ineffective ground game resulted in a forgettable second half in which the Giants defense keyed in on the Cowboys' passing game and made Prescott look a little bit like Matt Cassell.


5: Number of Cowboys scoring drives. Yes, you read that correctly. The Dan Bailey-enhanced Cowboys scored on five of their nine drives. The Giants only scored on three of theirs, yet they still walked away with the win.

Five scoring drives, a 59% third-down conversion percentage, a 13:26 TOP advantage - the Cowboys should have utterly dominated the Giants, but that's what you get when you trade field goals for TDs. Or when you play not to lose instead of playing to win.

With a hat tip to our old friend rabblerousr, let's hope we'll get to review better numbers next week.

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