Evaluating NFL teams after one week is almost impossible to do. It’s hard to tell if the team that won was just that good or if the team they beat is just that bad, or a mix of both. For example, last year’s first week of games saw the Jaguars upset the Colts; Jacksonville never won another game, while Indianapolis finished 11-5 and made the postseason. Similarly, the Browns were manhandled 38-6 by the Ravens last year, and everyone assumed it was just another year of the Browns being the Browns. But Cleveland finished with the same record as the Ravens, 11-5, and snapped the longest active playoff drought in the NFL.
There’s really no good way of figuring out how much stock to put into season opener performances. The Eagles are a trendy pick to be drafting in the top ten next year, but they currently lead the NFC East after beating a Falcons team with similar expectations. Meanwhile, the Cowboys barely lost to the reigning Super Bowl champion, yet they’re in a three-way tie for last place all the same.
One way to get an idea of how good Dallas actually is involves looking at some of the more advanced metrics out there, like DVOA, CPOE, QBR, pass rush win rate, etc. Many of these metrics take into account certain factors that volume stats - like yards, touchdowns, and final scores - simply aren’t able to adjust for. Caution needs to be exercised here because the low sample size can still be misleading, but here is a collection of all of the relevant analytics for the Cowboys after the first week.
The big ticket item for this Cowboys offense is that they rank eighth in the NFL in offensive DVOA. In Football Outsiders’ DAVE metric, which is a combination of DVOA and preseason expectations of DVOA, Dallas ranks seventh. Only the Dolphins (14th in DVOA and 14th in DAVE) had a smaller differential between the two. This means the Cowboys played ever-so-slightly above expectations, at least for Football Outsiders.
In the breakdown between pass and run, it was a stark difference for Dallas. They didn’t run the ball very much, and for good reason: they ranked 29th in run DVOA despite such a small sample size of carries. Not surprisingly, the Cowboys also ranked tenth in pass DVOA. Given how Dak Prescott performed, the only surprise here is that they didn’t rank higher.
Speaking of Dak, his numbers were predictably good. Prescott ranked tenth in QBR, third in EPA, eighth in CPOE, third in DYAR, and 12th in DVOA. In other words, he was really, really good. Kellen Moore’s strategy for mitigating the Buccaneers’ fierce pass rush was simple: get the ball out of Prescott’s hands quickly. That happened, as Dak had the second-quickest time to throw and the eighth-fewest average completed air yards. His receivers helped him out too, as the Cowboys’ 192 yards after the catch were the sixth-highest figure.
Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb were especially helpful on the few plays where Prescott did throw it a little deeper. Cooper accounted for 33.7% of Prescott’s air yards, while Lamb was responsible for 43%. However, as has been noted plenty already, Lamb’s struggles catching the ball hurt. His 46.7% catch rate was the eighth-lowest of any qualifying receiver this week, and the drop he had that turned into an interception negatively affected some of Prescott’s numbers as well.
Changing gears, the offensive line was surprisingly good for facing an elite defense without a Hall of Fame guard. Their numbers against the run are pretty bad, though much of that is due to the small sample size of actual runs. It’s worth noting, however, that all three of the Cowboys’ interior linemen graded out well in run blocking: Connor Williams tied for sixth in run block win rate, while Connor McGovern led all guards in run block win rate. And while Tyler Biadasz struggled mightily in pass protection against Vita Vea, he did have the ninth-highest run block win rate.
In terms of pass protection, the Cowboys had a good night. As expected, Tampa Bay sent the blitz early and often. In fact, no defense called more blitzes this week than Buccaneers defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. And yet, Tampa Bay came up with just one sack and only registered a pressure on 14.5% of Prescott’s dropbacks; only eight other starting quarterbacks had less pressure. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Dallas ranks fourth in adjusted sack rate. It is worth noting, however, that they ranked 29th in pass block win rate, suggesting that the clean pocket was more a result of Prescott’s quick passes than actual blocking success. With La’el Collins out the next five games, that’ll be something to watch.
Anyone who expected big things from this new-look defense in Week 1 was setting themselves up for disappointment. They faced the same exact offense that finished fifth in DVOA last year, and so far rank tenth in DVOA and second in DAVE. Naturally, the Cowboys finished the week placing 22nd in defense DVOA. They ranked 21st in DAVE, meaning they only slightly underperformed expectations.
Dallas was predictably inefficient against the pass, ranking 22nd in pass defense DVOA. The promising part here is they ranked seventh in run defense DVOA, a welcome sight after how often opposing running backs gashed this unit last year. Don’t get ahead of yourself though: the Buccaneers ran the ball just as many times as the Cowboys, so this figure is slightly inflated. Dallas ranked 17th in run stop win rate, which is still much better than last year.
The more troubling number is 21. No, not Ezekiel Elliott, but rather the Cowboys’ rank in team pass rush win rate. Anyone who knows Tom Brady’s style of play knew this pass rush would struggle to generate pressure - in fact, their 6% pressure rate was third-worst in the NFL this week - but having such a low pass rush win rate points to larger problems than Brady’s quick release. Here’s a positive, though: DeMarcus Lawrence tied for fifth-best individual pass rush win rate among EDGE defenders. That shouldn’t be a surprise.
One thing to note is the defense’s blitz rate. Dan Quinn isn’t known for blitzing much, but he was doing so at alarmingly high rate in the preseason. That didn’t carry over to this game, as Quinn called blitzes on just 24% of all dropbacks. Not surprisingly, Micah Parsons accounted for eight of the Cowboys’ 16 total blitzes, with Donovan Wilson and Bradlee Anae being the only other two defenders with multiple blitz calls. Whether this is the norm going forward or more just a strategic result of facing Brady remains to be seen, but it’s worth keeping an eye on.
The numbers in pass coverage reveal what will be the Cowboys’ biggest challenge by far. Trevon Diggs was notably great: the second-year corner trailed Mike Evans for most of the game and allowed just one catch on his five targets. Jourdan Lewis saw the most targets with 11, but he allowed only six catches; the problem is those six catches went for 74 yards and a touchdown. Still, Lewis allowed a decent 68 passer rating when targeted.
Anthony Brown, on the other hand, struggled mightily. He was targeted eight times and allowed seven catches for 121 yards and a touchdown. Brady had a perfect passer rating when throwing his way. Brown will be in desperate need of a rebound this next week in Los Angeles. And while it’s not a particularly big deal yet, it’s worth noting that Dallas’ linebackers weren’t good in coverage. Parsons allowed five catches on seven targets, while Jaylon Smith allowed catches on all three of his targets with one going for a touchdown. Keanu Neal also allowed two catches on three targets, which is not what you want from the guy who previously played safety his entire career.
Special teams performance is one of the hardest things to get a good measurement on, but Football Outsiders does a pretty good job with their metrics systems. For example, the 2019 Cowboys were at the bottom of the rankings in special teams DVOA when they finally cut Brett Maher. It took Kai Forbath hitting all ten of his field goals to elevate the Cowboys to a 30th place finish. It then took John Fassel just one year to turn things around, as Dallas ranked seventh in DVOA in 2020. Both of these figures seem to be accurate measurements of the Cowboys’ special teams performances in those seasons.
It’s equally fitting, then, that Dallas finished dead last in special teams DVOA after this week. Greg Zuerlein’s missed field goals and extra point were a big factor, but Dallas also ranked second to last in kickoff coverage and 25th in punt return efficiency. Zuerlein did hit on all three of his kicks in the second half, which lends credence to the idea that he was just rusty after attempting zero field goals in the preseason. But the other issues on special teams have to be concerning. But Fassel showed just last year the impact he can have on this unit, so it’ll be interesting to see how they improve in the coming weeks.