Boo. Hiss. This was the NFL opener we have been waiting for since February? The slopfest between the Atlanta Falcons and the Philadelphia Eagles? This game that featured a flurry of flags, one quarterback who completed 19 passes for only 117 yards, a receiver on the other team with 169 yards all by himself, but his team only got in the end zone once, despite multiple trips to the red zone? The Falcons lost the game by six points, despite having seven plays from inside the Eagles’ 20-yard line at the end, including a penalty that gave them one last shot at the end zone - a target that offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian and quarterback Matt Ryan were unable to find all night long. It was just terrible football on the part of both teams.
So why is a Dallas Cowboys blog opening with this? Especially since the hated Eagles got away with a win in a game they did not come close to playing well enough to win, which may come back to haunt the Cowboys? Well, because of just what it shows about preseason predictions. Far more writers, bloggers, and fans had the Eagles and Falcons selected to make it to the playoffs than favored the Cowboys. And while we still have to see how Dallas shows up against the Carolina Panthers, there was nothing about that game Thursday night that says either of those teams looks like a lock for the postseason. And you have to feel a bit better about the Cowboys’ chances against both teams this year.
Obviously, it’s just one game, and either, or both, the Eagles and Falcons can get things straightened out. For our beloved and treasured fellow NFC East member from Philly, they have the hope that Carson Wentz will soon return to replace Nick Foles, who looked like that run to the Lombardi never happened. But there were a lot of other issues for them, while the Falcons just looked lost. (The officiating, which somehow managed to have another “Did he catch it?” moment despite all the work on the rule, was also monumentally atrocious, but that is a different ball of worms, as they say.)
It was a bit serendipitous that the morning after that almost unwatchable game I ran across Bill Bidwell’s article that states a case for all 32 teams to win the Super Bowl. He starts out with something every fan should take to heart.
To my knowledge, exactly zero national media members predicted that the Philadelphia Eagles would win Super Bowl LII. That list includes me; I suggested that they were extremely likely to improve and even said that they would go from worst to first in the NFC East on my podcast, but I didn’t think they would win the championship at any moment until Brandon Graham strip-sacked Tom Brady with 2 minutes, 16 seconds to go in the fourth quarter in the game.
Does that mean every piece of preseason information you’ve read is worthless? Of course not. At the same time, though, making preseason predictions limits realistic fans and analysts alike to one of a few teams. The Eagles had a 1.9 percent chance of winning the Super Bowl before last season, according to the Bovada sportsbook, which was tied for 16th-most likely. They had a chance, but nobody in their right mind would have said they were the most likely candidate to win a Super Bowl.
Exactly. There are very few writers out there who pay enough attention to all 32 teams to have even a general idea of what the teams have in terms of strengths and weaknesses. Preseason games tell us just slightly more than squat as teams limit the exposure of their starters. Writers, analysts, and bloggers that cover one team have a much better idea of things - for their team. They still are largely reduced to guesswork and extrapolation about the rest of the league.
(Just for reference, Barnwell has the Eagles as the third most likely team to go to the Super Bowl this year, with Atlanta eighth and the Cowboys sixteenth - or just where Philly was a year ago.)
And that basically is where we are. The first week, everything is mostly based on what teams did last season (recency bias), combined with what is thought about free agent losses and signings, draft picks, and injuries. But until we play things out, it is still all just a slightly quantified wild you-know-what guess. It will take more than one game for the real picture to emerge, as teams work off that rust.
By the way, as far as the terrible play we saw on TNF, count me as a skeptic about placing the blame on the lack of preseason work by the starters. That can affect things, but what we saw looked a lot more like two teams that were just not prepared for the game. I think that was more about coaching than anything. It would seem that NFL coaching staffs would realize that there is a big advantage in week one if you come in better prepared and conditioned than the other team. Both the Falcons and Eagles looked woefully underprepared. Now, we have no idea if the Cowboys look any better. But if they do, then you need to give credit to Jason Garrett and his staff - because you know fingers will be pointed if the team doesn’t look ready.
Back to the original topic of this, one of the reasons that the Cowboys could be right in the thick of the playoff race is that there are so many unknowns. The receiving corps in particular, combined with the expected changes to the offensive plan we have heard so much about, are generally assumed to be a failure by those who predict Dallas will not do anything this season. More than one writer or analyst has labeled them the “worst in the NFL”.
But here is the silver lining to that. If they manage to not be at the bottom of the league and can just get to the middle of the pack - like around 16th or so - that will outperform expectations. And joined with the likely high-output running game of a motivated Ezekiel Elliott and an emerging defense, that should be good enough to win a bunch of games. All that passing game has to be is credible enough to loosen up the opposing defenses so Zeke is not facing stacked boxes. It can’t be totally impotent, obviously. But it hardly has to be top five or ten to get the job done.
Remember, those negative predictions about the passing game are generally based on people who read the names and maybe look up their past stats. If you have been paying attention to the beat writers who cover Dallas full time, you get a very different vibe. These receivers have been working hard, absorbing the lessons of Sanjay Lal, and look a good bit better than the “worst in the league”.
It all has to show up on the field, and the first time we get to see that is upon us. We’ll start to find out in Carolina how that passing game works, as well as see if this season really is the Vengeance of Zeke and the Rise of the Hot Boyz. But be assured of one thing: There are teams that outperform and underperform their preseason predictions every season. The odds are that the Cowboys will be in one category or the other. Let’s just hope it is the good one.