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The Cowboys’ success in 2021 rests on defensive improvements

While the Dallas offense has been the primary focus in recent years, 2021 will be defined by the defense.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys Training Camp Jason Parkhurst-USA TODAY Sports

Watching the Cowboys’ defense in 2020, it is clear that there is nowhere to go but up. The “bend-don’t-break” defensive philosophy that fans had become accustomed to under Rod Marinelli quickly ended. Not only did the defense break, it was a historically bad season. With 2020 in the rearview mirror, hopefully to be soon forgotten, there is hope for 2021.

The good news for Cowboys fans is that the defense does not need to be perfect in the upcoming season. An average defensive performance would almost assuredly result in a Cowboys playoff berth, assuming the offense is to the level that is expected. But how good does our defense need to be to regain control of the NFC East?

In its most basic form, the team that scores more points than it allows will win the game. This simple notion has resulted in formulas from data scientists that predict the expected wins a team will have, using points scored and points allowed. Applying this to the 2021 Dallas Cowboys should give fans greater insight into the level of defense needed to make the playoffs.

When Dak Prescott went down to injury, the Cowboys were averaging 32.6 points per game, placing them third in the NFL in this metric. Assuming this pace was unsustainable, reducing Dallas’ ppg to 28.6 in 2021 is a more conservative estimate. This projection is based on Pro Football Focus ranking the Cowboys as the ninth-best offense for the upcoming season, which would have been just under 29 ppg in 2020. Given this scoring production, the defense only needs to improve slightly.

One quick note, paying attention to the extremes on either side of the graph gets misleading. A team will almost always be estimated to win more than one and less than 17 games. This is part of the reason that Vegas will never set the win total for a team at these extremes. While performance in close games and luck may push a team to these totals, it is rarely projected to occur.

In 2020, the Dallas defense allowed 29.6 points per game. Meaning that if the defense does not improve at all, then we should expect between 8 to 9 wins in 2021. However, with an entire offseason spent attempting to fix the defensive woes of 2020, what if there is improvement on this side of the ball?

If the Cowboys’ defense is simply average in 2021, allowing 23 points per game, the team will win an estimated 11 games. This is not a prediction of our final record, but it does prove that the defense does not need to be top-notch for the Cowboys to make the playoffs.

While a league-average defense would require drastic changes, allowing just under 26 ppg would likely result in ten wins. Between the leadership of Dan Quinn, Micah Parsons impressing in the preseason, and various free agent acquisitions, this outcome is attainable.

Vegas currently has the Cowboys winning nine games. Meaning that the oddsmakers expect that either our offense will not see the same success under Dak as it did in 2020, or the defense has not improved whatsoever. Fans who believe that both of these statements are false should be comfortable with a 10- to 11-win prediction.

Is a Super Bowl in the cards? Probably not. 87% of all Super Bowl winners had a top-10 defense and even the most hopeful Cowboys fans would not project that type of improvement, but assuming that this is a likely playoff team is more reasonable.

The numbers above are only expected wins given points for and points against. If the Cowboys get lucky in close games, thirteen wins is possible. But since luck has been in short supply over the last four years, fans should not count on it. This logic also implies that if Dallas consistently loses in close games, the team could finish as low as 6-11.

Obviously, there are limitations to such a study. It does not factor in luck in close games, injuries, or strength of schedule. This also hinges on the assumption that the Cowboys offense will be top-10 in the NFL. Any decrease in points scored would thus require additional improvement on defense.

The bottom line is that we do not know what 2021 will hold for the Dallas Cowboys. But we do know that if the offense can produce anywhere near the level of the first five weeks of last year, the defense does not need to be stellar. A return to the playoffs would simply require mediocrity from Dan Quinn’s squad.

This season hinges upon defensive progress. Even a slight correction on this side of the ball would spell success. Maybe it’s delusional to assume that the defense can return to the “bend-don’t break” method it prescribed to for years. But a small uptick in performance from 2020 would go a long way in producing wins. With the season two weeks out, all we can do is sit back and hope that Dan Quinn has the defense ready to play.