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Cowboys Playoff Tracker: Backing into the playoffs with a backup QB?

Can Dalton get it done?

NFL: OCT 11 Giants at Cowboys Photo by Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

How do you quantify the impact Dak Prescott’s season-ending injury has on the 2020 Cowboys?

You can’t, really, but that hasn’t stopped people from trying.

The Vegas sportsbooks were quick to respond: In the look-ahead line that was released last week before Prescott was injured, the Cowboys were a three-point favorite against the Cardinals in Week 6, but they are now three-point underdogs against the Cardinals. That makes Prescott worth a six-point swing.

FiveThirtyEight.com offers a QB-adjusted season win projection in addition to a regular win projection. Prior to the Giants game, their regular projection had the Cowboys finishing 7-9, and their QB-adjusted projection (which included Dak Prescott) had the Cowboys at 8-8, so Prescott was worth at least one extra win in their model.

A week later, and with a win against the Giants under their belt, their regular projection has the Cowboys at 8-8, and their QB-adjusted projection (now with Andy Dalton instead of Prescott) has the Cowboys at 6-10.

Taken together, this suggests the Cowboys would be worth two to three more wins with Prescott.

In last week’s playoff tracker, we suggested the Cowboys might make the playoffs with a losing record, and with Prescott out for the season and the NFC East being what it is, it is looking increasingly likely that the NFC East could be won with a losing record this season.

But is it all doom and gloom for the Cowboys from here on out?

Maybe not. Though that depends a lot on Andy Dalton, of course. Because while the FiveThirtyEight model suggests a steep dropoff from Prescott to Dalton, it also suggests that in the NFC East, the Cowboys will retain at least average quarterbacking with Dalton.

Here’s a graph with FiveThirtyEight’s version of a QB ranking:

The graph shows all NFC East QBs ranked by their Value in ELO Points, which (in simple terms) is based on a 10-game rolling average of “a regression between ESPN’s Total QBR yards above replacement and basic box score numbers (including rushing stats) from a given game, adjusted for the quality of opposing defenses.”

Incorporating both passing and running, Prescott has 253 ELO points, while the other starting NFC East QBs are a fairly average bunch, with Carson Wentz at 138 points, Daniel Jones at 120, and the Washington QB (whoever that ends up being) at 83, 90 or 143 points.

And Andy Dalton fits right into that with his 121 Elo points, which might just be enough to carry the Cowboys to the playoffs, though maybe not much farther.

Footballoutsiders.com for example still think the playoffs are within reach for the Cowboys:

Team Record Mean Proj. Wins DIV WC Total
DAL 2-3 7.1 44% 2% 46%
PHI 1-3-1 6.7 34% 2% 35%
WAS 1-4 5.4 13% 1% 14%
NYG 0-5 4.8 9% 0% 10%

Football Outsiders have the Cowboys with the best odds to win the division, FiveThirtyEight with their QB-adjusted projection have the Eagles with slightly better odds:

Team Record Projected Record Playoff Odds
DAL 2-3 6-10 35%
PHI 1-3-1 6-9-1 47%
WAS 1-4 5-11 16%
NYG 0-5 4-12 5%

Both projections have the NFC East winner with no more than six wins.

The last time the Cowboys lost their starting QB, a young Dak Prescott led the team to a 13-3 record. The year before, the Cowboys lost their starter after two games, and a succession of Brandon Weeden, Matt Cassel, and Kellen Moore quarterbacked the Cowboys to a 4-12 record. With the way this year has unfolded, anything between those two extremes feels possible.