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Are the 2019 Cowboys the best team in the Jason Garrett era?

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Some efficiency stats outline just how spectacular of a start the 2019 Cowboys have had.

NFL Pro Bowl Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

DCBlueStar tweeted out an interesting set of stats on Thursday.

Turns out that after Week 3, the Cowboys rank top two in both offensive and defensive third down conversion rate. That’s pretty impressive, especially given that they are the only team in both the offensive and defensive Top 5.

While the major networks and many people who are paid to report about the NFL would have you believe that what matters in football is how many yards you accumulate, this is not, in fact, true. How much someone passes or runs for can make for nice anecdotal discussions in the context of fantasy football, but has next to nothing to do with winning in the NFL. Volume stats do not correlate to victory.

But efficiency stats do. And since third-down conversion was a popular pet topic of my good friend rabblerousr (see this fine article on the topic) back in the day, I decided to put this year’s figures into some kind of historical context. But there are a couple of caveats up front:

  • I decided to look at all Cowboys teams since 2007, which coincides with Jason Garrett’s tenure in Dallas, first as the OC then as the HC. You could also call them the Post-Parcells Cowboys, the Modern Era Cowboys, or something similar, but the “Garrett Era” fits the bill just as well, so I stuck with it.
  • This is not a Romo vs Prescott debate. The nice thing about a team-wide efficiency metric is that it is about the whole team, and not just a single player.

You need to understand that the numbers shown above for the Cowboys are not sustainable over an entire season. Here’s an overview of the best season-long third down rates across the NFL since 2007.

Top 5 teams on 3rd downs, 2007-2018
Offense Defense
Tm Year 3D% Tm Year Opp3D%
NOR 2011 56.7% MIN 2017 25.2%
IND 2008 50.2% HOU 2015 28.5%
IND 2007 49.3% DET 2013 30.3%
IND 2009 49.2% MIN 2018 30.5%
MIA 2009 49.0% DEN 2012 30.6%

All of which means the Cowboys are traveling outside of any historic norm. Now, imagine you’re the Eagles offense, and you’re also traveling outside the historic norm, at least on offense, and all you have to show for it is a 1-2 record. Bummer, huh?

[After last night’s game, they remain at an impressive an impressive 56.1% but are still just 2-2].

Since 2007, the Cowboys have never allowed a season-long third down percentage below 35% (2009) and have never converted at a season-long pace higher than 47.3% (2014)

In rabble’s fine article, he pointed out how the 2014 team started the season with a bang, but ended on a whimper - at least in terms of third downs.

The first thing I’d like to point out is that the Cowboys 2014 offensive campaign consisted of two distinct seasons. In the first, comprised of games one through seven, they converted third downs at an alarmingly successful rate, never lower than a 50% clip and, in five of the seven games, in excess of 55%. Dallas was not only converting at a historic rate, but shattering previous highs. That was some pretty special early season sauce.

After the first Giants game, however, the Cowboys never again rose above 50%, and only reached the .500 mark on two occasions. In short, a team that converted first downs at an historic rate in Part I of the 2014 campaign fell back to earth in Part II, converting at a meagre 38% clip. Thanks to this moribund second half, the Cowboys finished the season at 47.3%, which was second in the league behind the Saints.

Using rabble’s point about the “moribund second half” as a jumping off point, I looked at which teams had the best three-game start in terms of third-down conversion in the Garrett era:

60%. The 2008 team that, on paper, should have been even better than 2007.

58.1%. The 2019 team we are trying to figure out.

54.3%. Tony Romo’s last and probably best season.

52.5%. Dak and Zeke’s rookie season.

And here’s a graphical representation of how that third-conversion rate progressed over the course of each of those seasons:

The graph clearly shows how the conversion percentages declined each year, but because it uses a cumulative value it doesn’t fully show the severity of the drop over the course of the year. In 2016 for example, after starting the first three weeks with a hot 52.5% average, they ended the year with a frigid four-game average of 28.1%.

Could this be the year the Cowboys manage to avoid a later-season decline?

The stats suggest they will not, but even if they end up “just” on the level of the 2014 and 2016 teams, you’d still potentially be looking at a 12-4 or 13-3 type record. It just may not be as pretty as it’s been the first three weeks of the year where it sometimes felt like the offense was going through opposing defenses like a hot knife through butter.

But the 2019 team may have an ace up its sleeve in its defensive third-down performance, even if some analysts argue that defensive stats are largely a function of the strength or weakness of opposing offenses. And given who the Cowboys have played so far, that may play a role in the defensive third-down performance.

Still, the defense is off to a phenomenal start, hands down the best in the Garrett era.

We saw earlier that some of the best NFL defenses of the last decade and a half had 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%).

And as we did above, here’s a graph with how 3rd conversion rate allowed has progressed over the course of each of those seasons:

Surprisingly, the defensive rates seem much more stable than the offensive rates over the course of a season - at least with these two samples here - which seems to run counter to the earlier statement about defensive stats being largely a function of the offenses faced.

Be that as it may, it looks like there’s a chance this year’s defense could achieve an historically low defensive third-down performance. Add that to a top-of-the line offense, and I believe what I told rabblerousr in camp this year still holds true:

This is the best Cowboys team of the last 20+ years.

Whether it is enough to get to the Super Bowl, I don’t know, a lot of things impact that. But I do know that if I’m ownership, my expectations are sky high. And if your coach can’t get it done with this team, he’ll never get it done.