What went wrong for the Dallas Cowboys in 2020? How did such a talented roster that led the league in offensive yards and was in the top of many categories end up 8-8 and missing the playoffs? It’s really hard to pin down all the underlying factors to come up with an adequate answer to that question. Play-calling, player performance, luck, game strategy, clock management - there are plenty of areas to dissect in trying to come up with an answer.
There is one thing that stands out, and while it doesn’t tell us the reasons, it does tell us that the Cowboys were an anomaly in some ways in 2020. Based on their stats, it’s estimated they should have won between 10 and 11 games. Where they failed is in close games.
Each year, Bill Barnwell breaks down which teams are likely to improve in the upcoming season and which ones are likely to regress. While stats and personnel obviously play a role in this, Barnwell has found that the team’s record in close games from the previous season is not a bad indicator of how they will do the following year.
For the Cowboys, that is good news in 2020. A quick look at last year shows the Cowboys under-performed in close games. Big time.
2019 point differential: plus-113
Pythagorean expectation: 10.7 wins
Record in games decided by seven points or fewer: 0-5
FPI projected strength of schedule: 12th easiest
As noted, the Cowboys point differential lines up with many other stats that show they should have been a top contender last year. The Pythagorean formula calculated they should have had 10.7 wins. But look at those close games. 0-5. That’s how you end up going 8-8.
The good news? Barnwell has found that these things tend to regress to the mean. For instance, going into 2019 Barnwell had projected the Cowboys to do worse because in 2018 they did so well in close games.
The Cowboys were on the other side of this list last year as one of the teams I expected to decline. They did, falling from 10-6 to 8-8, but it wasn’t because their performance declined. On a snap-by-snap basis, they were better than they were in 2018. They outscored opponents by less than a point per game in 2018, with that mark jumping to more than a full touchdown per game last season. They improved from 21st in DVOA in 2018 to sixth in 2019. They finished the season seventh in ESPN’s Football Power Index, just ahead of the two teams that lost in the conference championship games.
What changed is simple. In games that weren’t decided by seven points or fewer, the 2018 Cowboys were 2-4. The 2019 Cowboys were 8-3. In the close games that were decided by seven points or fewer, though, they fell from 8-2 in 2018 to 0-5 last season. The same regression to or past the mean helped sink them in 2015 and 2017, and while I don’t want to suggest there’s a Bret Saberhagen thing happening here, it popped up again in 2019 and cost Jason Garrett his head-coaching job.
Despite the Cowboys being a better statistical team in many categories, they did worse overall in 2019, and much worse in close games. Barnwell digs a little deeper into that close game disparity.
More than anything, the Cowboys were just fantastic when they needed to be in the final minutes of games in 2018. They kicked a field goal on the final play to win two games and beat the Giants with a touchdown and a two-point conversion with 1:12 to go in Week 17. They beat the Eagles with a late score and two defensive stops inside the final four minutes in Week 10 and then topped Philly in overtime with an Amari Cooper touchdown in Week 14.
Last year, with a better offense and virtually the same core of talent, the late-game heroics didn’t show up. Dallas laid an egg against the Jets, and after scoring two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to get it to 24-22 with 47 seconds left, it failed on the 2-pointer to push the game to overtime. Down 28-24 against the Vikings, Dak Prescott went 6-of-7 for 79 yards to push the Cowboys into the red zone with 1:57 to go. Facing second-and-2 from the 11-yard line, they handed the ball to Ezekiel Elliott two times and saw their star back lose a total of 3 yards. Prescott threw an incompletion on fourth down and then an interception on a Hail Mary to end the game.
Many things go into losing close games. Barnwell cites the infamous example of play-calling that doomed the Cowboys in the Vikings game from last year. One thing not mentioned is the horrible special teams play of 2019. That certainly factored into some of those close games losses. Conservative game plans also played a role. The Cowboys are tying to fix a lot of that with a new coaching staff.
While teams will obviously do what they can to improve each year, Barnwell suggests that simple variance in these close games plays a role. He cites group statistics to prove his point.
The Cowboys were plus-6 in one-score games in 2018 and minus-5 in those same games in 2019. That’s an 11-game swing over the course of two seasons. Since 1989, just five other teams have dealt with an 11-win swing or more in close games, one of which will be appearing later in this column. To get something resembling a significant sample, we have to expand a bit and consider the teams that had a negative swing of eight games or more. When teams typically undergo that sort of swing from year to year, what happens in the third season?
They almost always improve. Of the 27 teams that fell off by eight or more wins in close games, 23 improved the following season, while one stayed at their prior record and only three declined. Three of the four teams that didn’t improve either replaced their quarterback by choice or via injury, including last year’s Panthers, who got only two injury-hampered games from Cam Newton. The 27 teams improved by an average of 2.7 wins the following year and won just over 46% of their close games. Dallas should be better in those one-score games in 2020.
The Cowboys didn’t stand pat and hope that a regression to the mean would mean more wins. They replaced their coaching staff, they brought on one of the best special teams coordinators around. They’ve talked about using analytics more, and being a more aggressive defense that will try to force more turnovers. Those are just some of the moves the team has made in order to improve.
Now, let’s see how they do in the close games this year.