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Cowboys analytics roundup: Where Dallas stands heading into the playoffs

Despite some bumps along the way, the Cowboys enter the playoffs as legitimate contenders.

NFL: JAN 09 Cowboys at Eagles Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Well, that’s a wrap. The 2021 regular season came to an end this past weekend and, with a bit of luck, the Dallas Cowboys finished as the three seed in the NFC. They’ll now host the 49ers on Sunday after finishing 12-5 on the year.

That means we’re reaching our final analytics roundup of the year, now complete with a full season’s worth of data to reflect how this team performed. As always, these analytics results are not meant to be an indicator of how the Cowboys will perform going forward, but rather to offer a more meaningful understanding of how they have performed thus far. And to that end, it’s been a good year for America’s Team.

Cowboys Efficiency at a Glance

 DVOA DVOA Rank DVOA Rank Previous Week Weighted DVOA Weighted DVOA Rank
 DVOA DVOA Rank DVOA Rank Previous Week Weighted DVOA Weighted DVOA Rank
Offense 13.4% 6th 9th 11.3% 7th
Defense -15.2% 2nd 1st -19.1% 1st
Special Teams 2.2% 6th 5th 4.4% 5th
Overall 30.9% 1st 1st 34.8% 1st

The Cowboys sit up at the very top of total DVOA. That means they’ve been the most efficient team throughout this season. The second place Bills trail by 3.2 percentage points, a fairly significant gap. Dallas also leads the league in weighted DVOA, holding a 3.6 percentage point lead over the second-best team in that category, the New England Patriots.

Based off of DVOA grades, Dallas had the seventh-easiest schedule this year. Since DVOA grades already account for strength of opponent, this doesn’t diminish their league-leading efficiency metric whatsoever. It’s also worth noting that other playoff teams like the Buccaneers, Bills, Bengals, and Eagles all had easier schedules while placing below the Cowboys in efficiency.

NFL Team Tiers, Weeks 1-18 courtesy of rbsdm.com

The Cowboys finished the season in the top tier, third overall, in the EPA-based rankings. Since EPA doesn’t account for quality of opponent, the Cowboys got a big boost from beating up on the Eagles backups. Still, they sit in good company with the Buccaneers and Bills near the top.

Offense

Cowboys Offensive Efficiency

 Grade Rank
 Grade Rank
Offensive DVOA 13.4% 6th
Pass DVOA 31.7% 6th
Run DVOA -4.0% 13th

If finishing sixth in offensive DVOA and seventh in weighted offensive DVOA is a slump, then what’s every other team’s excuse? All jokes aside, the Cowboys offense played at a pretty efficient rate throughout the year, although they were helped out by a strong start and finish to the year; Dallas ranked as the 10th most inconsistent offense by DVOA this year, a reflection of their midseason dip in production.

Kellen Moore’s unit also finished the year seventh in EPA per play. They were 14th in EPA per carry and sixth in EPA per dropback. Considering last year the Cowboys offense was 24th in EPA per dropback, there’s a strong argument to be made for Dak Prescott’s value to this team. Speaking of the quarterback...

Dak Prescott’s Efficiency

 Grade Rank
 Grade Rank
QBR 54.9 9th
EPA 85.8 7th
CPOE 2.2 T-5th
DVOA 21.2% 3rd
DYAR 1379 3rd

First, a little clarification here on the source of these numbers. The QBR and EPA numbers come from ESPN, and it measures cumulative EPA as opposed to EPA per play. The completion percentage over expected (CPOE) comes from the NFL’s Next Gen Stats (NGS) site. DVOA and DYAR come from Football Outsiders. Other outlets may have different formulas for calculating some of these metrics, but considering that ESPN created QBR, NGS created CPOE, and Football Outsiders created DVOA and DYAR, these sources were the ones we tracked all year.

With that out of the way, Prescott finished the year looking like a pretty darn efficient quarterback. He’s inside the top ten in every category despite having some spotty performances along the way. But as the season played out, things stabilized as they often do, and the analytics here reflect that Prescott is indeed a top ten quarterback, and possibly better than that. Only Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady - the current betting favorites for MVP - sit ahead of Dak in DVOA and DYAR.

Cowboys Offensive Line Efficiency

 Grade Rank
 Grade Rank
Adjusted Line Yards 4.80 2nd
RB Yards 4.68 5th
Adjusted Sack Rate 5.6% 9th
Pass Block Win Rate 58% 23rd
Run Block Win Rate 73% 6th

Just like the rest of the offense, this offensive line had ebbs and flows throughout the year, but they’ve played well on the whole. Tyler Biadasz became the only lineman to start every game this season. Who would’ve guessed that after his struggles in the first two weeks? For his part, Biadasz finished in a tie for the second-highest run block win rate among all centers in the league.

Elsewhere, Zack Martin continues to be unreal; the perennial Pro Bowler finished seventh in pass block win rate and tenth in run block win rate among all guards. Tyron Smith was seventh in run block win rate among tackles despite missing several games. Run blocking has been this unit’s obvious strength, while their deficiencies in pass protection have (for the most part) been masked by smart scheming and quarterback play.

Defense

Cowboys Defensive Efficiency

 Grade Rank
 Grade Rank
Defensive DVOA -15.2% 2nd
Pass Defense DVOA -20.5% 2nd
Run Defense DVOA -7.1% 16th
Pass Rush Win Rate 42% 12th
Run Stop Win Rate 31% 14th

What’s the bigger surprise of 2021: Dan Quinn turning the defense into a top three unit, or Micah Parsons being a finalist for the Defensive Player of the Year award? Neither was expected or even discussed as a possibility entering this year, but that’s where we’re at. The two are intertwined, too, as Parsons’ versatility unlocked so much for Quinn.

It also helped that Randy Gregory took the next step as a pass rusher and DeMarcus Lawrence, once he came back from injury, dominated too. The Cowboys have been a terror for opposing quarterbacks all year, although their run defense has struggled pretty consistently. That could be a problem as they prepare for a run-heavy 49ers team in the playoffs.

Cowboys Pass Coverage

 Targets Completions Completion Rate Passer Rating Allowed ADOT When Targeted Air Yards Allowed Yards After Catch
 Targets Completions Completion Rate Passer Rating Allowed ADOT When Targeted Air Yards Allowed Yards After Catch
Trevon Diggs 103 54 52.4% 55.8 10.4 496 411
Anthony Brown 122 65 53.3% 78.4 12.2 518 318
Jourdan Lewis 76 52 68.4% 93.4 8.5 381 305
Kelvin Joseph 17 8 47.1% 82.7 6.8 14 75
Jayron Kearse 65 40 61.5% 77.5 6.8 179 237
Damontae Kazee 25 13 52.0% 85.8 14.2 135 70
Malik Hooker 28 16 57.1% 80.8 9.6 59 90
Donovan Wilson 14 6 42.9% 57.1 8.1 39 26
Keanu Neal 38 30 78.9% 97.1 3.8 109 169
Leighton Vander Esch 38 27 71.1% 87.9 1.8 37 226
Micah Parsons 36 22 61.1% 71.5 3.1 37 123

Another aspect of the Cowboys’ big turnaround on defense was their secondary. Their top three cornerbacks from last year in terms of snaps played - Trevon Diggs, Anthony Brown, and Jourdan Lewis - all remained. But Dallas added three stellar safeties around last year’s breakout Donovan Wilson, and the upgrade in safety play was huge.

That allowed Quinn to call man coverage at one of the highest rates in the league while unleashing hell upfront with Parsons and company. Diggs’ significant increase in takeaways was also huge, even if he occasionally gets burned because of it. Even Leighton Vander Esch, who was a miserable defender in coverage most of the year, played significantly better over the final month of the season. This secondary really started clicking at the perfect time.