I’m a fan who doesn’t know a whole lot about football. But I like to learn.
One of the things that seems to keep us from learning is when we have assumptions—optimistic, pessimistic, or neither—that are immune to evidence. For example, if someone’s assumption is that Dak stinks, no expert rankings (they’re all wrong!), no wins (anyone could have won that game!), no stats (those were padded against bad teams in garbage time!), can change your mind. Ditto for more blue-koolaid-tinted assumptions in which it is only injuries and poor officiating that kept us from dominating our opponents.
So one of the things I like to do is to set out a hypothesis at the beginning of the year, AND articulate a way to test that hypothesis. And this year, it is the DTs that intrigue me.
DTs are harder to judge by a single simple stat. But it is fair to say that if you list the top 25 DTs, you aren’t going to be naming any Cowboys. (Maybe even the top 50.) We are starting the season with a couple of free agents about whom there are mixed feelings, a couple of rookies who may not be ready, and two possibly-talented youngsters who happen to be injured. Will it be a disaster? Will the interior line be a pleasant surprise?
I have no problem with people making either prediction. But it bothers me how easy it could be, at the end of the season, for each side to claim it was right. What would be a sign that the Cowboys IDL was a weakness? What would count as proof that they were successful? What standards do we want to set—ahead of time—to keep from massaging or explaining away the evidence that doesn’t fit our narrative?
I’m hoping for a lot of help in the comments. Here are some first thoughts:
1. Opponents’ average yards-per-rush against us. This depends on a lot of factors, from the LBs to the scheme/ strategy of each game. Still, it’s on the DTs to stifle the run.
2. Cowboys’ ability to stop 3rd-and-short or 4th-and-short.
3. Average time-to-throw for opposing QBs. I expect most of our actual pressures and sacks to come from DEs or blitzers, and I blame much of the passer-rating-against on DBs, but the DTs need to keep the opposing QB from having all day to throw.
4. Any quantified eye test about double teams, clean pockets, or line-of-scrimmage movement. In other words, I absolutely trust the eye test for any given play—but I distrust people’s tendency to generalize from a few good (or bad) plays. Hence, any references to "eating up double teams" or "not providing any push" are valuable only if you are counting how often it happens—not just pointing to a handful of cherry-picked examples. Extra points if you are able to compare that count, to the numbers of an average IDL.
5. Grades, such as those provided from PFF. Note that the value of these grades is not that they are objective—they are based on the eye test, just like our own—but that they have a system to apply that eye test to every snap, and compare it to other snaps by other DTs. It may not be a very good system, but I trust it more than no system.
6. "Splash plays"—pressures, TFLs, other?
What am I missing? What’s your favorite piece of evidence for judging a DT?
My bold predictions for 2021 DTs:
The Cowboys IDL will be in the 3rd quartile of the league, below average but not in the bottom quarter.
By his third game back, Hill will be one of the two best DTs on the team, making the off-season suggestions that he shouldn’t make the roster look silly.
Bohanna will be a non-factor in 2021.
Odiggy will struggle to adjust to the pro level, even if he gets a few starts while Gallimore is out, and will end the season as a purely rotational backup.
Which of these bold predictions do you like? What are your own? How will we know which were right?