Right now, we’re all in the midst of preseason football, where there are technically games on TV but it’s not quite real football just yet. Preseason games don’t really tell us too much about teams anyway, since it’s more for coaches to evaluate their players.
But analytics can offer valuable insight into what a team was, is, and will likely be in the near future. So with that in mind, it could be fun to use analytics to predict each game on the Cowboys’ schedule in 2021 and see how close the predictions end up being.
For the Cowboys, the analytics won’t really tell you anything new about last year. When Dak was on the field, Dallas ranked fifth in the NFL in offensive DVOA; without Prescott, they were 31st. And defensively the Cowboys were 23rd in DVOA after a strong finish to the season on that side of the ball.
In short, the Cowboys’ 2021 hopes rely on what we’ve known for a while now: Prescott’s return takes the offense back to its peak, and Quinn’s simplified scheme improves the defense just enough to complement the offense and win some games. But what do the analytics say about the Cowboys’ opponents? Let’s get into it.
Week 1 at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Yes, the Cowboys open up their season on the road against the reigning Super Bowl champs. Not only that, but the Buccaneers return all 31 of their players who had at least 200 snaps last year, as well as retaining all of their coordinators and head coach Bruce Arians. It’s incredibly rare for a Super Bowl team to experience that kind of continuity.
Another rarity for the 2020 Bucs was their injury luck. According to Football Outsiders, Tampa Bay was the healthiest team in the NFL last year, which seems unlikely to happen again this season. And yet they’re unlikely to be feeling any major absences in the season opener, which can’t bode well for the Cowboys.
The Bucs offense, led by Tom Brady, was third in DVOA last year and featured a pass-happy attack, throwing the ball 55.7% of the time on early downs. With the same exact personnel this year, and with a normal offseason’s worth of work together, they’ll be debuting against a young, rebuilt secondary with a brand new defensive coordinator. That’s without mentioning that Tampa posted the second-highest EPA/play against single-high safety looks (Quinn’s go-to coverage) last year.
The Bucs defense will also present a tough matchup for Prescott’s return, as they’ve finished in the top six in DVOA each of the last two years and return all of their starters. If there’s one ray of hope, it’s in the fact that defensive coordinator Todd Bowles had the fifth-highest blitz rate in the NFL last year and Prescott has historically been great under pressure: in his small sample size last year, for instance, Dak had the fourth-highest EPA/play when blitzed, and unlike last year he’ll have Tyron Smith and La’el Collins manning the edges again.
Still, the Buccaneers present too tall of a challenge for this Cowboys team, especially in Week 1. Were this matchup later in the year, it may be a different outcome, but the odds of Dallas getting off to a 1-0 start this year seem very low right now.
Prediction: Buccaneers win, Cowboys fall to 0-1
Week 2 at Los Angeles Chargers
After starting the year on the road in Florida, the Cowboys then have to travel cross country to California to play the Chargers. Unlike their previous opponent, the Chargers are in a much different spot. They’re led by first-year head coach Brandon Staley, a young and energetic defensive mind who’s talked a big game about integrating analytics into his approach, as well as last year’s Offensive Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert.
Ironically, Herbert became the first quarterback since Dak Prescott to finish in the top ten in EPA as a rookie, and that was with the Chargers operating out of a run-first scheme last year. Between Staley’s analytical inclinations and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi’s roots in New Orleans, it’s expected that Los Angeles will be putting the ball in Herbert’s hands a lot more this year. So if the Dallas secondary is indeed torched by the Buccaneers’ passing attack in Week 1, they’ll have no time to rest and regain their confidence.
The good news, though, is that Herbert isn’t exactly an ideal matchup against Quinn’s single-high safety scheme. While the former Ducks star was lightning-in-a-bottle against split safety looks last year, he ranked middle-of-the-pack in EPA/play against single-high coverage. Additionally, Herbert’s best trait as a rookie was how he handled pressure - he led all quarterbacks in EPA/play when pressured and came in fourth when blitzed - but he surprisingly did poor when not facing pressure. He was 12th in EPA/play when there was no blitz, and 21st when he wasn’t pressured. Given that Quinn’s scheme doesn’t blitz often, that may end up being a good thing in this game.
As for the Chargers defense, they’re undergoing some pretty stark schematic changes. Previously they ran a straightforward 4-3 scheme with a single-high safety look, but are now adapting to a hybrid 3-4 with a predominantly split-safety look. How that transition goes, especially early on, is a bit uncertain. However, Staley’s propensity for using a high frequency of zone coverages and a low frequency of blitzes is likely to carry over to the Chargers. That bodes well for Dak, who’s historically been better against zone than man coverage, especially when he’s had time to sit in the pocket and read the defense.
That said, this won’t be a cake walk for the Cowboys. Herbert is a talented quarterback, and the defense has some studs in Joey Bosa, Derwin James, and Chris Harris Jr. Additionally, the impact of such a long flight between these first two games can’t be understated. It has all the makings of a trap game for Dallas, but the analytical findings are trending in their favor.
Prediction: Cowboys win, improve to 1-1