The 2019 Cowboys have been an enigma wrapped in a riddle surrounded by frustration. Supposedly a Super Bowl contender with a young, talented roster, the team was a pretender during a 10-game stretch that saw them lose seven times.
But a dumpster fire NFC East has given this mediocre team an opportunity to still accomplish great things. And they can accomplish great things when they play at their best.
Sunday we saw what this 2019 unit could accomplish as they thoroughly dismantled a good Los Angeles Rams team. When this team plays like that, they are capable of beating any team in the league. While they seem allergic to consistency, it certainly isn’t impossible for this team to get on a roll, beat the Eagles for the division title then string together a few wins to advance to the Super Bowl for the first time in a generation.
To do that, however, Jason Garrett is going to have to do something he’s never done: get his team to play their best when the stakes are highest.
Now, Garrett has gotten his team up for big games in the past (think New Orleans or Philadelphia last year or on the road against Seattle and Philly in 2014). But in winner-take-all games, Garrett’s team have rarely played up to their talent level... and never play above expectations.
In this exercise we’re going to look at the Cowboys and their opponent’s Simple Rating System from Pro Football Reference (which I’ve written about in the past and you can read more about here). The gist of it is the measure tells us how each team is expected to perform against an average team in that year’s NFL.
For example, a SRS number of 4.0 means the team would be favored by four at a neutral site against an average team. We’ll also look at the Vegas spreads for each game. Between these two numbers we can make a basic assumption about the overall quality of the two teams involved - and then compare the game results to those assumptions. In general, we would expect the teams to perform close to what the SRS and Vegas spreads tell us.
2011 - 2012 - 2013
These were the famous 8-and-8 seasons. But each season is also remembered sadly because in each instance Dallas entered a week 17 showdown against a division rival with the division crown at stake.
And in each instance Jason Garrett’s team lost. Let’s look at the numbers to see how each team performed against expectations:
First off, these were not good teams; the Cowboys’ SRS numbers are those of average teams. Thus, Dallas was the underdog in each game, as evidenced by the spread. And looking at the SRS numbers we see the Cowboys were:
- About as good as New York in 2011 - but playing on the road (which is usually worth about three points).
- Three points worse than Washington in 2012 - and playing on the road.
- 2.6 points worse than Philadelphia - playing at home but without Tony Romo, hence the seven-point underdog status.
So, how did Dallas perform against expectations?
- Suffered a blowout loss when expected to play a close game against the Giants
- Suffered a double-digit loss to Washington when expected to play a close game against the Redskins
- Suffered a close loss to the Eagles when expected to be beaten by a touchdown
Summarizing, in two cases the team significantly under-performed and in a third case probably over-performed, but not well enough to win the game.
2014 - Detroit
The 2014 Cowboys were the best Dallas team we had seen in many years. It was the first team to top 5.0 SRS points since the 2009 squad and only the third Cowboys team to do so since 1995. More importantly, the team entered the post-season on a serious roll, having won four consecutive games by a combined margin of 21+ points:
That 2014 team had an SRS of 5.4 and was facing a Detroit team with an SRS of 2.1 in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. That 3.3 point difference - plus the fact Dallas was playing at home - established the Cowboys as a nearly touchdown favorite against the Lions.
So it was pretty frustrating when Dallas punted on each of their first five drives, surrendered touchdowns on each of the Lions’ first two drives and faced a 14-point deficit before the first quarter was over.
In less than 15-minutes of game-time the Cowboys has squandered everything they had worked for the previous 17 weeks. Now, Dallas did end up coming back and winning the game. It required an almost perfect second half from the Cowboys’ defense, some clutch execution from the Cowboys offense, a key fourth-down conversion, a brain-dead fourth down decision from Lions’ coach Jim Caldwell, a shanked punt by the Lions and a highly controversial no-call on a potential pass interference penalty against the Cowboys.
In short, a Dallas team expected to win handily at home against an inferior opponent instead gave a poor performance where the Cowboys were lucky to advance. The final numbers (a six-point favorite that won by five) doesn’t really tell the story.
2014 - Green Bay
The win enabled Dallas to travel to face Green Bay, who had an identical 12-4 record as the Cowboys. But unlike Detroit, Green Bay was a quality team with Aaron Rodgers playing at peak Aaron Rodgers form and the Packers sporting an 8.3 SRS grade. As such, the Packers were established as a six-point favorite.
This time, Dallas was ready to play and frankly looked the better team throughout most of the game. But a key fumble by DeMarco Murray, four sacks of Tony Romo, a defense that couldn’t get off the field in the second half (the last four Packers drives resulted in two touchdowns, a field goal and a decisive 4+-minute drive that ended the game) and of course the infamous no-catch rule against Dez Bryant resulted in a disappointing loss.
This is one game where you can say Jason Garrett’s team played at or above their level in a win-or-go-home situation. They played well throughout, were disciplined and generally error-free and were undone by some misfortune. A six-point underdog, Dallas lost by five, but looked just as good as Green Bay.
2016 - Green Bay
Only two years after their surprising 2014 run, the Cowboys again surprised the NFL by riding two rookies (Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott) to a 13-3 record and the #1 seed in the NFC. Along the way they racked up an SRS number of 7.0, meaning the team was considered a full touchdown better than an average NFL team. Again, this was only the third time since 1995 Dallas had achieved an SRS number that high (9.0 in 2007, 7.1 in 2009).
Their reward was a bye in the wild card round and a home game in the division round against a slightly better than average Green Bay team (2.8 SRS). Dallas was established as a 5.5 point favorite and frankly I thought that number was too low.
And yet, in a repeat of what happened two years prior, Dallas found itself down 21-3 midway through the second quarter. Once again, an entire season of work had been undermined by 20 minutes of incompetent football. The Packers first three drives went 75, 90 and 80 yards for touchdowns as the Dallas defense simply had no answers.
Again, credit the team for hanging in there and making a (memorable) game of it, but the reality is the 2016 season was lost in those 20 minutes of football. The 5.5 point favorite instead lost by three. That’s two times out of two home playoff games that Garrett’s teams came out and played poorly.
2018 - Seattle
The 2018 Dallas Cowboys finished with a 10-6 record but were buoyed by a fortuitous 9-2 record in one-score games. The team’s 1.1 SRS number reflected the fact the team was mediocre. Dallas, however, won the NFC East and thus hosted a wild card round game against Seattle. The Seahawks were the better team based upon SRS (4.5), but because Dallas was playing at home the Cowboys were considered 2.5 point favorites.
Unlike previous games, Dallas didn’t get run over in the first quarter as the game was close throughout. Dallas (pretty much) put the game away late with a miraculous Dak Prescott draw to convert a 3rd-and-14:
Overall, the team played up to expectations, beating a good, experienced playoff opponent by a slim margin.
2018 - Los Angeles
Dallas entered this game a 7.5 point underdog. They were going on the road against a high quality team (8.5 SRS). The final losing margin (30-22) almost exactly matched the betting line.
Still, no one would claim the Cowboys played up to their potential. Specifically, the Cowboys biggest strength (their running game) was completely shut down (only 50 yards on 22 attempts) while the Rams themselves ran roughshod over the Cowboys’ defense (273 yards and four touchdowns).
The Rams scored 20 straight points after falling behind 7-3, to take a 23-7 lead. Yeah, Dallas managed to score a couple times and make it interesting but the final margin was not truly indicative of how one-sided this game was.
It was another disappointing, underwhelming performance for Jason Garrett’s Cowboys’ in an elimination game.
What have we learned?
We’ve seen that Jason Garrett’s Cowboys range from not coming close to playing to their ability to kind of sort of playing to their ability in these elimination games. Here’s a summary of them:
One way we can look at it is to compare the variance in the team’s SRS numbers, the betting line and the final margin of victory. Under-achieving teams will have a margin of victory below the SRS variance and the betting line while over-achieving teams will have a margin of victory above the SRS variance and the betting line:
What we see is the Cowboys usually perform close to expectations, in terms of final margin. But as we noted above, in the Detroit, Green Bay (2016) and Los Angeles games the Cowboys trailed by double-digit margins every time. The team came back in each instance, but the Cowboys simply didn’t play their best from the opening kickoff.
Contrast the above chart with the same chart for Jimmy Johnson’s Cowboys:
There is the one shocking result against Detroit in 1991 (the worst post-season defeat in Cowboys’ history). But otherwise you see a team that is thoroughly going above and beyond expectations. Note the scale of the chart with margins of victory consistently above ten.
Note also that many of these victories were against very high-caliber teams:
Three of the victories came over teams with SRS numbers of 8.9 or higher - and yet Dallas won those three games by a combined 51 points! Dallas had high-caliber teams, but they were going against high-caliber opponents and beating them decisively.
In short, those Johnson Cowboys teams consistently played above expectations, playing their very best football when the stakes were highest. That’s generally required for post-season success.
Garrett has taken a lot of criticism for a lot of things over the years (rigid, robotic, can’t adapt, conservative). But to me, his single biggest weakness as an NFL head coach is his inability to get his teams to play up to and above their abilities in the team’s most important games.
Looking at the Garrett games above we see different quarterbacks, different rosters, different coaching staffs, different schemes. The only constant is the man himself, Jason Garrett.
So yeah, it’s possible the Cowboys could go on a memorable run that could go as far as hoisting a Super Bowl trophy. But for that to happen, Garrett will have to do something he’s never done before, which is get his to play their best in elimination games.