This time of training camp, there is an air of optimism around almost every NFL team. The Dallas Cowboys are no exception, even with the uncertainty over how the Ezekiel Elliott situation will be resolved. However, simple logic tells us that not all teams are going to get better. A lot will be worse this season. Even when a roster is improved, it may not be enough to keep up with the competition.
According to ESPN writer Bill Barnwell, the Cowboys are one of five playoff teams he sees as taking a step backwards. Does he have a point?
Yes. And no.
Barnwell does point to some troubling things that the team overcame last year, and likely shouldn’t have. Most importantly, they went 8-2 in one-score games. That is simply an unsustainable success rate year-to-year. Historically, huge swings in that area are more likely than any kind of consistency. That applies league wide and to the Cowboys specifically. Over any lengthy term, one-score games are pretty much a coin toss.
That predominance of narrow victories led to a small points differential for 2018 of plus 15. Barnwell plugged that into the formula known as the Pythagorean Expectation, and came up with a figure of 8.2 wins, which says that the Cowboys should have been a .500 team. Their eventual 10-6 record to win their division and get to the playoffs was a case of over-performance. It depended on far too many fourth quarter comebacks. As was noted in the article, during the late season run that saw them win seven of their last eight games, they were trailing or tied in the last period in five of them.
One thing that is not seen as a likely contributor to a decline is the Zeke holdout. Barnwell is another writer who expects it to be successfully resolved before the start of the regular season. As might be expected from someone using that Pythagorean thing, he also subscribes to the analytics view that running backs are not as important to winning as the other components of the offense.
He has certainly highlighted some true issues that the Cowboys should likely not have been able to surmount last season.
However, that was last season. The only thing about this year he really addressed outside of those comments about the holdout was the offensive line, and how Travis Frederick’s return should help - if he is really back from his fight with GBS.
Let me counter with what we have been seeing so far in training camp. This is a different team in many aspects. I won’t go into detail on all the signs that indicate that things will actually get better, since they have been covered at length here and elsewhere, but here is a quick bullet list.
- Dak Prescott has looked much sharper in practice - and he was the main reason they were so successful in those fourth quarter comebacks.
- The receiving group looks miles better than it did to start the season last year, and the chemistry between QB and the WRs has been noticeable.
- Not only is Frederick looking to be on schedule in his return, but Tyron Smith is healthy and balling while both Connor Williams and La’el Collins look to be improved. The injury problem for Zack Martin is worrisome, but the team assures us it is not a big deal.
- Jason Witten is back, and appears to be playing more like he did four or five years before his brief retirement than he was in 2017.
- The defensive line is loaded (even with the Quinn setback).
- Ditto the linebackers.
- And the secondary, even with Byron Jones not cleared to practice, has been very, very good, led by the star of the first half of the Oxnard sessions, Xavier Woods.
Those are all things that did not enter into Barnwell’s assessment. And we haven’t gotten to the one thing that may impact things more than any other. That is the switch at offensive coordinator.
Those close wins were very much affected by the conservative and predictable offense under Scott Linehan. His tendency to be cautious until he was forced to open things up kept things close, even in games where the Cowboys looked to clearly be outplaying the other team. Linehan was far too willing to just protect the ball and punt it away to let the defense protect the lead. The defense had some great performances, particularly in the stunning win over the New Orleans Saints. But they seemed to get worn down late in the season. That is one reason the depth on the D line was such a focus this offseason. Still, it is better to score more points than passively leave it up to the defense getting a stop.
Now Kellen Moore is the offensive coordinator, and all the signs from camp, and the OTAs before, are that he is taking an entirely different approach. The plays have been more aggressive. Pre-snap motion is visible on almost every down.
Moore has gone on record as saying that the plays themselves wouldn’t change much from the past, but the Blue and White Scrimmage on Sunday may indicate that he might just be keeping his cards close to the vest, as our old friend Joey Ickes noted.
I’m watching the blue/white scrimmage broadcast on https://t.co/Oh7SDY8TLk and the very first RZ 7-on-7 play they showed was a play design...— Joey Ickes (@JoeyIckes) August 6, 2019
Click to read the rest of his thread to see what he means. But that, and the successful end around with Cedrick Wilson, show that even if the plays used were already in the playbook last year, Moore is going to go much deeper in finding what to call on gameday than Linehan did.
What the Barnwell article illustrates is that so many of the “projections” this time of year all are based on the past performance of a team that may have undergone significant changes and improvements in personnel, and important shifts in philosophy as well. While it is true that some of the same old problems could rear their ugly heads again, this year’s offseason and camp seem dedicated to correcting them. And the Cowboys have addressed just about all of them. (That kicking situation, though.) We also must admit that injuries always threaten to derail the best-laid plans (hopefully Quinn will be ready Week 1), but all we can do about that is hope for the best.
We will get some more data on what this year’s Dallas team actually is starting this Saturday with the first preseason game, but as always, we have to remember that we won’t know for sure until the real games start in September. Hopefully, we will then be able to submit Barnwell’s article as an old take exposed.