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Are the 2019 Cowboys better than the two previous Cowboys playoff teams?

The last two times the Cowboys made the playoffs were in 2016 and 2018. After seven games, how does this year’s team compare to those two teams?

New Orleans Saints v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

I’m sure there’s some eager beaver who read the title of the post and then immediately jumped into the comments section to vent at the ridiculousness of such a question.

Don’t be that guy.

Sure, the 2016 Cowboys were 6-1 after seven games, a marked difference from this year’s 4-3 team. Then again, this year’s team has a better record than the 3-4 record the 2018 team had after seven games.

Yet that 2018 team won its wildcard game against the Seahawks before bowing out to the Rams in the divisional round, while the 2016 team was one and done in the playoffs.

As a working hypothesis, we’ll assume that the 2019 team will make the playoffs, but the key question is, can the 2019 team do better in the playoffs than the previous two playoff teams?

There’s obviously no quick answer to that question, and there’s a lot of football still left to be played, but one way of approaching that question is by looking at how different the 2019 Cowboys are compared to the previous two Cowboys playoff teams after seven games in a number of key statistical categories. In comparing the stats across three seasons, I’ll use a simple color scheme to denote where the 2019 team stands against the previous playoff teams:

  • Green: better or equal to both 2016 and 2018
  • Yellow: better or equal to at least one of the previous two playoff teams
  • Red: worse than both 2016 and 2018

If you’re so inclined, you can skip all the numbers in the tables below and simply focus on the colors, they’ll provide the same information as the numbers do.

Apart from the W/L record, the most obvious place to start comparing the three teams is by looking at the all-important scoring differential, which headlines our overview of topline team stats in the table below.

Stats after 7 games '16 Cowboys '18 Cowboys '19 Cowboys
Points scored 188 140 190
Points allowed 130 123 124
Points Differential 58 17 66
TO ratio -4 -2 0
First Downs 170 130 172
Penalties 47 43 54
Opp. record after 7 games 21-28 25-24 19-30
Close games (decided by 1 TD or less) 3-1 2-2 0-2

The 2019 team scored slightly more points than both previous teams, even if the two-point lead vs 2016 basically makes this a wash. Similarly, the 2019 team has allowed one more point than the 2018 team, which is about as close as it can get. But combined, the 2019 team looks better in scoring differential and the closely linked turnover ratio. Plus this year’s team is generating more first downs than the two previous playoff teams, even if they don’t look quite as good on penalties.

“Big deal,” some might argue, “they’ve only played the scum of the league so far, and yet they are just 4-3!” It’s true that this year’s team has played a fairly weak schedule, with opponents at 19-30 after seven games, but that’s only marginally worse than the 2016 opponents after seven games (21-28).

The key difference between the three teams is their record in close games. The 2016 team managed a 3-1 record, the 2018 team a 2-2 record, and this year’s team is 0-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less.

And from a macro perspective, that’s the main difference between the three teams. Sure, the 2019 team comes out slightly ahead in some of the metrics above, but it’s not like it’s putting up massively superior stats. And as rabblerousr liked to point out, good teams avoid close games altogether.

Let’s dig a little deeper into some of the stats for the offense to see whether the picture remains as ‘green’ as it was in the table above. Here is how the 2019 offense compares to the 2018 and 2016 versions:

OFFENSE after 7 games '16 Cowboys '18 Cowboys '19 Cowboys
Passer Rating 99.2 87.4 102.6
Passing TDs 9 8 12
Interceptions 2 4 7
Passing yards /Attempt 7.7 6.2 8.6
Sack /Attempt 5.0% 11.2% 4.2%
Yards per rush attempt 4.9 4.9 4.9
Rush yards per game 165 137 146
Rushing TDs 12 5 11
Third Down Efficiency 43.7% 31.9% 51.9%
Red Zone TD % 60.7% 55.6% 64.0%

This is a very good showing for the 2019 offense. Overall, the 2019 team is better than the other two teams in seven out of the ten metrics above, which strongly suggests that this year’s offense is superior to both the 2016 and 2018 versions.

Interceptions are the only metric in the ‘red’, but perhaps that’s the price for being the most vertical of the three offenses. The running game has two ‘yellows’, but it remains strong overall.

The defining stats for the 2019 offense are the third-down conversion rate and the red zone TD percentage. Pro-Football-Reference has records for third-down conversion going back to 1991. Care to take a guess how often the Cowboys had a better rate after seven games than in 2019?

Just twice, in 2014 (57.4%) and 2008 (52.2%). Of course, I’ve argued previously that this year’s conversion rate is bound to decline, but it’s impressive regardless.

If the 2019 offense is the best of the three offenses we’re looking at (and can maintain it’s pace for the rest of the season), it stands to reason that the Cowboys could go even farther in the playoffs this year than they did in their last two playoff appearances - unless the defense isn’t up to par.

Here’s the same data for the three defenses:

DEFENSE after 7 games '16 Cowboys '18 Cowboys '19 Cowboys
Passer Rating 94.1 98.6 89.0
Passing TDs allowed 11 8 6
Interceptions 4 2 3
Passing yards /Attempt 6.6 6.9 6.4
Sack /Attempt 5.1% 8.6% 6.9%
Yards per rush 4.3 3.6 4.2
Rush yards per game 93 96 97
Rushing TDs 3 4 7
Third Down Efficiency 44.2% 39.4% 26.3%
Red Zone TD % 52.0% 36.8% 45.8%

The defense only has four out of ten metrics in the ‘green,’ but that doesn’t mean the defense is bad, far from it. The pass defense looks better than it has in years, with a defensive passer rating of 89.0, the first time it’s been below 90 since 2014. Passing yards per attempt are down, which is big, and passing TDs are down, which isn’t quite as big, as the decline in passing TDs is balanced by an increase in rushing TDs.

The rushing game looks bad from a colors point of view, but that’s only because I’ve been very strict with the colors. Yards allowed per rush are down vs 2016 but higher than 2018, rushing yards per game are basically a wash between the three years, and the increase in rushing TDs allowed is a tradeoff with fewer passing TDs allowed. Opponents averaged just below 100 rushing yards per game in all three years; the run defense in 2019 is fine, even if social media immediately hyperventilates when a run by the opposing team crosses the line of scrimmage.

But the crowning jewel of the 2019 defense is its third-down performance.

The very best NFL defenses of the two decades have allowed a third-down conversion rate of around 30%. The Cowboys never came close to that, though they at least came in below 36% twice, once in 2008 (35.6%) and once in 2009 (35.0%). To allow a conversion rate of just 26.3% is phenomenal. Sure, who the Cowboys have played so far may play a role in that performance, but you can only play your schedule.

If the defense can sustain this level of play over the rest of the season, there’s no indication that the defense will keep the Cowboys from making and advancing in the playoffs.

The brings us to the next and final table: special teams.

SPECIAL TEAMS after 7 games '16 Cowboys '18 Cowboys '19 Cowboys
Field goal % .875 (14/16) .888 (16/18) .714 (10/14)
Punt returns 8.0 5.4 5.8
Kickoff returns 22.8 24.8 16.8
Punt returns allowed 12.4 8.7 7.8
Kickoff returns allowed 24.3 25.1 23.1

Brett Maher has pulled off all sorts of heroics this year, but his field goal percentage isn’t very good. It’s hard to tell from the outside what specifically went wrong on those four misses, but the Cowboys seem to continue to trust Maher, so I’ll do the same, though it would be nice if that field goal percentage moved back into the >.800 range.

The 2019 team seems to have gotten a bit better at punt and kickoff return defense, but they continue to miss a return guy. They currently rank 24th in punt returns and 31st in kickoff returns. It would be nice if they could find a return guy, at least for the playoffs.

We haven’t quite reached the halfway mark of the season yet, and it’s still a little early to project where the 2019 team will end up this year. But based on where the 2016 and 2018 playoff teams were after seven games, the 2019 team stacks up very favorably against those two teams and there’s a reasonable chance that this year’s team could outperform those two teams in the playoffs.

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