Analytics are all the rage right now, which is why we’re going through each game on the Cowboys’ schedule for the 2021 season and using analytics for each team to make a prediction on who wins. In case you missed previous entries in this series, here is where you can find them:
And now, predictions for weeks three, four, and five!
Week 3 vs Philadelphia Eagles
It seems a little strange that the Cowboys’ home opener is against the Eagles, but here we are. And for Philadelphia, it’s been quite the offseason. Just three years ago, Eagles fans were celebrating their first ever Super Bowl and saw a bright future ahead with Carson Wentz and Doug Pederson. Now, both of them are gone and the Eagles are maybe tanking this year, with Jalen Hurts and Nick Sirianni taking over as quarterback and coach, respectively.
With so much changing, it’s hard to glean too much from the analytics with this team. We can make a few assumptions, but not much else. For starters, Hurts represented a very slight upgrade over Wentz last year: the Eagles offense ranked 21st in EPA/play with Hurts under center, and 31st with Wentz under center. Hurts also placed dead last in the NFL among qualifying quarterbacks in completion percentage, so he wasn’t blowing anyone away.
As for Sirianni, he’s been a longtime disciple of Colts head coach Frank Reich, who earned his current job after winning the aforementioned Super Bowl as the Eagles offensive coordinator. In other words, don’t expect Sirianni’s offense to look drastically different from Pederson’s. There will undoubtedly be some differences, but the philosophical roots should look very familiar.
On defense, Jonathan Gannon is stepping into his first coordinator role. His first NFL job came as Mike Zimmer’s assistant when Zimmer was calling the defense for the Falcons in 2007. Gannon later reunited with Zimmer as an assistant defensive backs coach in Minnesota before spending the previous three years with the Colts and defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus. Between Zimmer and Eberflus, this suggests Gannon will operate primarily out of a split-safety look with little blitzing. That just so happens to be what this defense was best at last year, ranking 10th in EPA/play in split safety looks and sixth in EPA/play when they didn’t blitz.
However, the Eagles’ biggest issue is that this roster is filled with young, inexperienced players and will be led by a coaching staff that’s equally inexperienced. Odds are good that Philadelphia will be competitive enough to make some games closer than expected, but with this matchup coming so early in the season, expect Dallas to have a strong advantage.
Prediction: Cowboys win, improve to 2-1.
Week 4 vs Carolina Panthers
There was once a point in time where it seemed like Mike McCarthy was destined to become the next Panthers head coach, but we all know Jerry Jones stopped that from happening. Instead, Carolina landed one of the hottest college coaches in Baylor’s Matt Rhule, and a total rebuild began with Cam Newton being swapped out for Teddy Bridgewater. After going 5-11 last year, Rhule moved on from Bridgewater and decided to take on a reclamation project in Sam Darnold.
By nearly every metric, advanced or not, Darnold was much worse than Bridgewater last year. But the Jets were also coached by Adam Gase, who kind of has a reputation for players breaking out once they’re no longer coached by him (see: Ryan Tannehill, Jarvis Landry, Mike Gesicki). The Panthers also have a brilliant young offensive coordinator in Joe Brady who led their offense to finish 17th in DVOA in just his first year calling plays, and he did it without star running back Christian McCaffrey for the majority of the year. Carolina is hoping that Brady is just the change of scenery Darnold needs. Early reviews from training camp aren’t so promising, though.
Defensively, the Panthers ranked just behind the Cowboys in DVOA last year, and the majority of their projected starters this year are either in their first or second year with the Panthers. Their most notable changes came in the secondary, where they drafted Jaycee Horn and signed AJ Bouye in an effort to be able to play more man coverage. But if last year was anything to go off of, Rhule and defensive coordinator Phil Snow primarily operate out of a single-high safety shell, and they don’t do very much blitzing.
Given that Dak Prescott is generally very good against that type of defense - he was 10th in EPA/play against single-high safety looks - that should bode well for the Dallas offense. Add in that Horn’s holding problems will bring a rough early transition and that Bouye, who is suspended for the first two games, will be getting acclimated back into the team, and the Cowboys are set up for a good day of offense. The last time Darnold faced this defense, it didn’t go so well, but the hope is that Quinn knows how to disguise coverages better than Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard. There’s also a benefit to this game being earlier in the schedule, and perhaps Darnold won’t be acquainted with the offense enough by this point even if he does still have something left in the tank.
Prediction: Cowboys win, improve to 3-1
Week 5 vs New York Giants
Here it is, the revenge game. It was Week 5 last year at home against the Giants when Dak Prescott injured his ankle and altered the team’s season completely. Now he’s back, but this Giants team has come a long way since then. At the time, New York entered the game 0-4 and looked ready to combust under rookie head coach Joe Judge. But they finished strong and nearly won the division, largely due to the stinginess of their defense. The Giants retained both of their coordinators and spent a lot of cap space and draft capital upgrading the receiving weapons for Daniel Jones. Early reports aren’t promising, nor is the all-out brawl that led to Joe Looney’s swift retirement the next day.
Still, there’s reason to suggest the Giants should be a bit better in 2021. Getting Saquon Barkley back helps, especially for the run-heavy offense Jason Garrett likes to employ. And the connection may not be there yet, but Kenny Golladay is a significant upgrade; over the last two years, Golladay is 12th among qualifying receivers in yards/route run. Rookie Kadarius Toney also presents an intriguing athletic profile, but he may get buried on the depth chart to start.
New York’s biggest issue, by far, is the offensive line. They ranked 21st in adjusted line yards and 27th in adjusted sack rate last year, and chose to clear up cap space by cutting their most productive blocker in Kevin Zeitler. To make matters worse, they didn’t bring in anyone to fill the void or upgrade other positions. It couldn’t have helped that Judge fired offensive line coach Marc Colombo during the season, and now he has another new offensive line coach who has never worked in the NFL before. This will be a huge point of emphasis for the Giants this year, and going up against a Cowboys defense that features DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory can’t help.
Defensively. the Giants have probably received a bit too much hype. There were a few games last year where they looked downright elite, but on the whole they finished 19th in DVOA, only a few spots ahead of Dallas. Defensive coordinator Patrick Graham, who comes from the Bill Belichick and Brian Flores coaching trees, uses a hybrid front that puts emphasis on coverage schemes and creating pass rush as a byproduct of the good coverage. Prior to the 2020 season, New York spent some money to get vastly underrated cornerback James Bradberry in the fold, and this year they added Adoree’ Jackson, and still have a safety trio of Logan Ryan, Xavier McKinney, and Jabrill Peppers.
Their secondary looks to have gotten markedly better, but the front seven arguably got worse. They lost Dalvin Tomlinson in free agency and their biggest addition was rookie edge rusher Azeez Ojulari, but this is a defense that finished dead last in pass rush win rate last year. Graham didn’t blitz very much last year, and when he did the team was 19th in EPA/play, a stark contrast to their 11th place position when not blitzing. Getting better at pass rushing would help this defense take the next step, but again, it’ll mean very little if the offense doesn’t also improve.
Overall, the Giants are experiencing some upward momentum from last year, but they’d need significant leaps from several key players in order to realistically match up with a healthy Cowboys roster. That’s not impossible, but it does seem unlikely, especially in the first half of the season.
Prediction: Cowboys win, improve to 4-1