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Which NFC East teams played better with their starting QBs on the field?

2020 turned into the year of the backup QB in the NFC East.

Dallas Cowboys v Washington Redskins Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images

As the Buccaneers prepare to play Washington in the first round of the playoffs on Saturday, Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians made an interesting observation:

“We’re not playing a 7-9 team. We’re playing a 4-1 team. When Alex Smith plays, they’re a 4-1 team,” Arians said on ESPN. “We’re not playing Dwayne Haskins. We’re playing Alex Smith.”

Arians actually understated how much better Washington’s record was with Smith during the 2020 season: Washington went 5-1 in games started by Smith, 1-5 in games started by Haskins and 1-3 in games started by Kyle Allen.

Arians is undoubtedly right, Washington is a very different football team when Alex Smith is under center, and probably a much better team than its 7-9 W/L record suggests.

The idea of removing games by backup QBs from the team records piqued my interest, especially because both the Eagles and Cowboys also played the bulk of their season with their backup QBs.

  • The Cowboys were 2-3 in games started by Dak Prescott, 4-5 in games started by Andy Dalton, and 0-2 in the two games started by Ben DiNucci and Garrett Gilbert
  • The Eagles were 3-8-1 in games started by backup QB Carson Wentz, and 1-2 in games started by their future starter Jalen Hurts (excluding the Week 17 game when Hurts was yanked)
  • Daniel Jones would probably be a backup on many other teams, but in New York, he pieced together a 5-9 record in his 14 starts.

One way of looking at team performances in those games is to use points scored and points allowed and use the trusty Pythagorean Formula to estimate a 16-game W/L record based on the performance in those selected games.

The Cowboys, for example, scored 163 points over their first five games, but allowed 180. On a per game basis, that’s 32.6 points scored, and 36.0 points allowed, which translates into a pythagorean win expectation of 7.1 games over a 16-game schedule.

Here’s how that compares to the other NFC East teams:

Team /QB Weeks Games PF/game PA/Game Pyth. Win Projection
WAS (Smith) 10-14, 17 6 25.7 16.8 11.7
DAL (Prescott) 1-5 5 32.6 36.0 7.1
NYG (Jones) 1-12, 14, 16-17 14 18.4 23.2 5.8
PHI (Hurts) 14-16 3 22.3 30.3 5.2

We know of course that wins and losses are not a good indicator for QB performance. Still, the table is interesting in that at first glance, it seems to indicate that while there is a significant difference in team performance for Washington with and without Alex Smith, that difference is not as immediately apparent for the Eagles and Cowboys. For both teams, the projected win totals are quite close to their actual 2020 win totals.

For the Cowboys, the points for and points against make for an interesting juxtaposition: Had the Cowboys maintained their 32.6-point pace on offense for the rest of the season, they’d have been the No. 1 scoring offense in the league; had they maintained the 36 points allowed per game, they’d have been the worst scoring defense in the league (by quite a bit).

It’s easy to fault the defense for hemorrhaging points and not helping out the offense, but it’s just as easy to fault the offense for turning the ball over as much as it did and not helping out the defense. There’s obviously plenty of blame to go around in Dallas after the season they just had, but at least there’s a silver lining: With the return to health of some of their offensive starters, the offense should continue to be a high-scoring unit. The question going forward then is how can the team fix its defense? Cowboys fans saw a hint of what that might look like over the final five games, when the Cowboys allowed an average of just 22.8 points per game. Some of that of course was built on unrepeatable fluky plays like interceptions and fumble recoveries (and a lackluster collection of opponents), but at least it’s a start. Cowboys fans just have to hope that this uptick in defensive performance doesn’t lead to the Cowboys becoming complacent and avoiding the tough decisions that need to be made on defense.

The Eagles have similar issues on defense (30.3 points per game) but don’t yet have the upside on offense (22.3) the Cowboys have. Their silver lining might be the small sample size: three games isn’t really enough of a sample size to deduce anything from, plus those games were Hurts’ three first NFL starts. Still, it’s a far cry from the 28.6 points they scored in their lone championship season.

Washington’s six-game sample size clearly establishes them as the favorite for the division crown next season provided Alex Smith stays healthy and decides to return for the 2021 season, neither of which is a given.

So, the Cowboys can hope for a healthy offense and some improvement on defense, the Eagles can hope for a year two jump in Jalen Hurts’ performance and rejoice in Jim Schwartz’s retirement, and Washington can pin its hopes on a healthy Alex Smith.

Which leaves us with the Giants. After years of struggling with a below average Eli Manning, they replaced him with a below average lookalike in Daniel Jones. The Giants are going nowhere on offense and are not impressing anybody with their defense either. Hard to find any hope for the Giants right now.

But back to the Cowboys: If you were Jerry Jones, what are three things you would do to get the defense to be at least average again? And firing yourself doesn’t count as an answer.