Here at BTB, we understand that offseason rankings are a bit silly, though most of us at least have curiosity as to who thinks what. Maybe it has something to do with being spurned before, but folks are all over the map when it comes to the Dallas Cowboys. Those same Cowboys that rode a powerful offensive formula to a 13-3 season on the backs of a rookie quarterback-running back duo are hard to decipher for some of these experts, so today we’re going to look at two completely different offseason projections, just to show how divided people tend to be in the offseason.
First up, Andy Benoit, from MMQB, believes the Cowboys had the worst offseason of any team in the NFC East. He gave the Cowboys a C+ for their work, but the way he arrives at his grade really leaves more to be desired. Other than him pronouncing the Cowboys as NFC North Champions (maybe because Cowboys beat all the NFC North teams, simple mistake), there are other things that don’t make much sense.
Per Benoit, the key Cowboys offseason losses were Ronald Leary, Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, J.J. Wilcox, and Doug Free, though the latter may not weigh quite as heavily:
“The Cowboys lost a starter from what is easily the NFL’s best offensive line when right tackle Doug Free retired. But remarkably, the line might be improved. Free’s spot will be filled by La’el Collins, the talented third-year pro who missed 13 games last season with a toe injury. Collins brings tremendous athleticism as a run-blocker.”
I tend to think the loss of Doug Free will be noticeable but the Cowboys will be able to recoup that loss. The bigger travesty here is that Barry Church was omitted from the key loss list but J.J. Wilcox is on it.
Another loss is Ronald Leary but Benoit goes on to state that if Johnathan Cooper wins that job it’ll be just as successful because he’s flanked by Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick. Benoit says:
“No other work was needed on the Cowboys’ offense. The defense, of course, was a different story.”
He follows that up by listing that the Cowboys lost three starters: Carr, Claiborne, and Wilcox. Again, Church is shafted but Benoit goes on to mention every player the Cowboys’ added and states:
“The beauty of this secondary is that its three best players are versatile. Third-year pro Byron Jones might be the only defensive back in football who can truly play anywhere.
In addition to him, top corners Orlando Scandrick and Anthony Brown (a tremendously underappreciated sixth-round pick last year) can play inside or outside. With Jones, Scandrick and Brown all capable of filling so many different roles, the Cowboys can tailor their game plans to opponents while also making that game plan more user-friendly for the rookies.”
Next, Benoit turns his attention to the defensive line, where he finally finds something to criticize:
“Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli doesn’t like to blitz. Instead he favors four-man D-line rush tactics like stunts, twists and grouped slants. Part of the reason he does this is he has a lot of mediocre front-four players who can’t consistently win on their own and need aid from the scheme.”
Finally, we’re down to the brass tacks of his reasoning for giving the Cowboys a barely passing grade (while giving the Giants a B+ when they drafted a tight end in the first round with a crowded receiving corps). Still, Benoit washes that out with yet another reason to question where his opinion resonates:
“Marinelli will still have to lean on these tactics in 2017, but the hope is that with No. 28 overall pick Taco Charlton aboard, it won’t be quite as heavily. A lot is riding on Charlton. With Demarcus Lawrence battling back problems in recent years and David Irving being only a part-time player, the Cowboys really don’t have another pass rusher who can bend the edge snap after snap.”
He basically states that the Cowboys have a lot of “mediocre” players but then gives a backhanded compliment to Taco Charlton. If you’re going to barely pass the Cowboys on this exam, it’s better to come forth with the actual criticism instead of being contradictory. At every turn, he’s given examples as to why the Cowboys should be expected to improve with what they have done and that doesn’t fit his “worst grade” approach.
We’re on to the next one with ESPN’s FPI ratings (football power index), they absolutely love the Cowboys’ chances to repeat as NFC East Champions. First, a quick summary of how they do their calculations:
“In short, a team's FPI rating combines its efficiency ratings on offense, defense and special teams -- based on each unit's expected points added per play -- with the sum of all three squad ratings yielding the overall FPI rating. (For more on how FPI is calculated, click here and here.)
We then use these ratings to simulate the NFL season 10,000 times in order to derive a team's chances to win its division, make the playoffs, win the Super Bowl, etc.”
The Cowboys come in with the best shot at winning the division and representing the NFC East in the playoffs according to ESPN FPI:
“The Cowboys are looking to become the first repeat champion in the NFC East since the Eagles won four consecutive titles between 2001 and 2004, and FPI gives Dallas a 46.4 percent chance to do so. "The field" of the Giants (22.6 percent chance), Eagles (19.3) and Redskins (11.7) collectively has a higher probability than the Cowboys (53.6), so don't bet against the title changing hands yet again.”
FPI is certainly not done with the Cowboys as they give them a 63.2% chance of making the playoffs, 46.4% chance of winning the East, 16.8% chance of being a wildcard, and 13.2% chance of claiming the number one seed, again. In the NFC, only two teams have better percentages than the Cowboys; the Seahawks and Packers.
According to FPI, the Cowboys rank fifth in the ability to reach the Super Bowl at 13.5% and a 5.7% chance of hoisting the Lombardi. The teams with the best odds are the New England Patriots at 50.7% chance to make it and a 34.7% chance to win it. The Seahawks and Packers follow them up with Seattle having a better chance to make it but Green Bay has a better shot at winning the title.
In the analytical sense, though the Patriots having such a huge margin of victory here bothers me, I totally see why and how they came to this conclusion.
These two comparisons are apples and oranges because one is opinion-based while the other is more analytical, but you see the difference with all these offseason rankings. You also see why folks may prefer the statistical analysis because it offers up a substance that you can keep in mind.
For me, Benoit didn't do much to explain why the Cowboys could be a better team in 2017. The Cowboys were 13-3 last season, they made some upgrades to their secondary, added a pass rusher, are sorting out their offensive line, added another receiving threat with special teams ability. Nothing they have done would tell me they’re worse for the wear. Sure, they have stuff to figure out but so does every team.