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Snap-for-snap, the 2018 Cowboys had the youngest offense and defense in the NFL

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“It’s just not fair,” says the rest of the league.

Young fan at camp 2012

Earlier this week we looked the last 11 Cowboys rookie classes to see how much playing time they contributed to the team. We found that the six rookie classes since 2013 have shown a strong playing time contribution, and that the success of the recent rookie classes has been a key driver in building a young contender in Dallas.

In that context, long-time training camp regular and BTB-member YumaCactus wondered if looking at team age on a per-snap basis might be a better indicator of the age of a team than the more traditional approach of simply looking at the average age of a roster - regardless of how many snaps each player played.

Foolishly, I agreed to take a look at the “age of snaps” per NFL team.

Last year, 2,026 individual players took at least one snap in the NFL regular season, per the snap count data available from Football Outsiders. Matching that data set with each player’s birthday as listed at Pro-Football-Reference.com proved to be a bit tedious, but yielded some interesting results:

Snap-for-snap, the Cowboys had the youngest team in the NFL in 2018.

On December 30, 2018, the day on which the bulk of the Week 17 games were played, the Cowboys had a snap-adjusted age of 9,400 days - or 25.7 years. That gave them a four-day advantage over the Cleveland Browns, who had the second-youngest team in the league with a snap-adjusted age of 9,404 days. Here’s an overview of the snap-adjusted age of all NFL teams per Dec. 30, 2018:

Rank Team Avg. Age Rank Team Avg. Age Rank Team Avg. Age
1 DAL 25.7 12 TB 26.8 23 NO 27.2
2 CLE 25.7 13 TEN 26.8 24 LAR 27.3
3 IND 26.1 14 BUF 26.9 25 BAL 27.3
4 CIN 26.2 15 GB 26.9 26 WAS 27.4
5 SF 26.3 16 MIA 27.0 27 PIT 27.5
6 CHI 26.5 17 NYG 27.0 28 ATL 27.6
7 HOU 26.6 18 DEN 27.0 29 OAK 27.7
8 KC 26.7 19 DET 27.0 30 PHI 27.8
9 JAX 26.7 20 MIN 27.0 31 CAR 28.2
10 NYJ 26.7 21 LAC 27.1 32 NE 28.4
11 SEA 26.8 22 ARI 27.2

The youth movement in Dallas has been going on for quite a while. It’s not always been the result of well-crafted plans (you cannot “plan” player retirements), and it’s frequently been accompanied by big dead money hits, but the results in terms of average age are undeniable.

The Cowboys “lost” eight players who started at least four games for them in 2017, either to retirement, free agency, or simply because they were cut. Here’s how those eight players compare to the eight players the Cowboys put in their roles in 2018:

Players Lost "Replaced" with
Players 2017 Starts 2017 age Player 2018 Starts 2018 Age
Jason Witten 16 36 Geoff Swaim 9 25
Dez Bryant 16 29 Amari Cooper 9 24
Jonathan Cooper 13 28 Xavier Su'a-Filo 8 27
Orlando Scandrick 11 31 Anthony Brown 10 25
Anthony Hitchens 12 26 Leighton Vander Esch 11 21
James Hanna 8 29 Dalton Schultz 7 22
Alfred Morris 5 29 Rod Smith 1 26
Stephen Paea 4 30 Antwaun Woods 15 25

This is certainly not a like-for-like comparison, but just the eight moves here shaved 37 years off the Cowboys’ total roster age, which helped the Cowboys get younger - and hopefully healthier.

Billy Beane, general manager of MLB’s Oakland A’s and protagonist of Michael Lewis’s Moneyball, described the health benefits of a younger roster succinctly in an interview with the Financial Times a while back.

“As [older players] become older, the risk of injury becomes exponential. It’s less costly to bring [on] a young player. If it doesn’t work, you can go and find the next guy, and the next guy. The downside risk is lower, and the upside much higher.”

Look at the table above and the list of players lost. Outside of iron man Jason Witten and Alfred Morris, every single player missed time in 2017 due to injury or was significantly affected by an injury in 2017.

Dez Bryant struggled through knee tendinitis, Jonathan Cooper underwent surgery for a sprained MCL suffered in the last game of the season, Orlando Scandrick missed games with a fractured hand and transverse process fractures in his back, Anthony Hitchens sat out the first four games of the season with a tibial plateau fracture in his right knee, James Hanna retired because of a knee injury that had hampered him the previous seasons, and Stephen Paea retired with a knee injury after just four games in 2017.

The other benefit of youth is the ‘upside’ that Beane mentions. Young players can be mercurial. They can improve suddenly. They can improve in leaps and bounds. You will not get that type of upside from a veteran player.

Which is why being young AND good is so important. Take the Cowboys’ snap-adjusted age of 25.7: the Cowboys could play two full seasons before reaching the average age of their division rivals in Washington and Philadelphia. That is what you’d call a window of opportunity.

But the 25.7 is just the overall team age. Football Outsiders split their snap counts by offense, defense and special teams. And while the title of this post already gave it away, it’s worth pointing out again anyway:

The 2018 Cowboys had the youngest offense and the youngest defense in the league!

On offense, the snap-adjusted age was 26.0, slightly lower than Houston and Cleveland with 26.1 each, but three full years younger than New England. On defense, the team was even younger, with an average age of 25.2, which placed them ahead of Cleveland (25.4) and San Francisco (25.6).

On special teams, L.P. Ladouceur (37), Chris Jones and Brett Maher (both 29) push up the average age of the unit to 26.4, ranking the Cowboys 19th in the league, but age may be less important on special teams (at least for the specialists like K, P, LS).

Here’s how all NFL teams ranked in snap-adjusted age across all units in 2018. For your convenience, the table is sortable (just click on the blue column headers).

Snap-adjusted age per Dec. 30, 2018
Team Total Offense Defense Special Teams
DAL 25.7 26.0 25.2 26.4
CLE 25.7 26.1 25.4 25.9
IND 26.1 26.3 25.8 26.1
CIN 26.2 26.2 26.3 26.1
SF 26.3 27.1 25.6 25.8
CHI 26.5 26.5 26.5 26.6
HOU 26.6 26.1 27.2 26.2
KC 26.7 26.5 26.9 26.2
JAX 26.7 26.8 26.8 26.1
NYJ 26.7 27.0 26.5 26.5
SEA 26.8 27.7 25.9 26.3
TB 26.8 26.9 27.0 26.1
TEN 26.8 26.6 26.9 27.0
BUF 26.9 26.7 26.8 27.5
GB 26.9 28.0 26.4 25.7
MIA 27.0 27.8 26.6 26.2
NYG 27.0 27.5 26.7 26.6
DEN 27.0 27.1 27.4 25.8
DET 27.0 27.2 26.8 27.1
MIN 27.0 27.3 27.2 26.1
LAC 27.1 28.3 26.3 26.0
ARI 27.2 26.8 27.8 26.6
NO 27.2 28.7 25.8 27.1
LAR 27.3 27.6 27.4 26.2
BAL 27.3 26.9 28.2 26.1
WAS 27.4 28.8 26.6 25.6
PIT 27.5 28.4 26.7 26.7
ATL 27.6 28.6 26.8 27.3
OAK 27.7 28.1 27.5 27.2
PHI 27.8 28.4 28.1 25.9
CAR 28.2 27.3 29.5 27.4
NE 28.4 29.0 27.7 28.4

But youth for the sake of youth alone (“at least we’re the No. 1 at something”) is not a winning strategy. The ultimate goal is to win championships, and you build your roster to contend for championships.

The Cowboys have just won their first playoff game since 2014. And with a win on Saturday, they could advance to the NFC championship game for the first time since 1996. But regardless of whether they win or lose that game, the youth of the team and the quality of that youth means they’ll likely be able to contend for years to come