FanPost

Grading the Cowboys 2021 Regular Season

So, your Dallas Cowboys entered a (virtually) meaningless contest against division rival Philadelphia Saturday night and put the proverbial beatdown on the birds. The offense marched up and down the field at will, folks with names like JaQuan Hardy and Ito Smith scored touchdowns and it was rainbows and sunshine all around. The victory, after some other results, secured the #3 seed in the upcoming NFC playoff tournament and provided Dallas with a 12-5 record in the league's first 17-game season.

Look, I thoroughly enjoy any game where the Cowboys beat up on the Eagles, especially on Eagles' turf. But we have to admit this game has (almost) no meaning whatsoever, at least in terms of telling us about the quality of these two teams. Dallas had their full contingent on offense available outside of Tony Pollard and most of the starters played deep into the second half. The Eagles' defenders, meanwhile. had almost no names I recognized as they emptied their roster and decided to sit all their starters the entire game.

On defense Dallas was missing four starters (most notably Micah Parsons, to go along with Trevon Diggs, Jayron Kearse and Anthony Brown). Otherwise, it was a matchup of Cowboys starters against Eagles backups. Yes, it's absolutely good that the Dallas starters did what they're supposed to against backups. I just don't think it tells us anything useful about these two teams.

Thus, no game grades this week because they would be meaningless. Instead I'll use this opportunity to review the season-long performance of each unit. I'll provide the usual mix of game highlights. But one thing stood out to me watching them: Dallas receivers were wide open all night long. The Eagles not only were playing backups they played the most vanilla defense imaginable, making no effort whatsoever to disguise what they were doing.

So for Dak Prescott and crew this was largely a glorified scrimmage. I'm happy Dak and the rest of the team took advantage of the opportunity to get sharp entering the playoffs. But my concerns from last week about this team's offensive struggles remains.

Let's go to the grades.

Overall: A-

Dallas tied for the 3rd best record in the NFL. Their 12-5 record fell one game short of Green Bay and Tampa Bay's 13-4 record and tied with the Los Angeles Rams, Kansas City Chiefs and Tennessee Titans. By the simplest measure possible (wins and losses) it was a very good season. In Cowboys' history 2021 ranks tied for 4th with numerous other 12 win seasons and behind three 3-win season:

13-win seasons:

  • 1992: 13-3
  • 2007: 13-3
  • 2016: 13-3

12-win seasons:

  • 1968: 12-2
  • 1977: 12-2
  • 1978: 12-4
  • 1980: 12-4
  • 1981: 12-4
  • 1983: 12-4
  • 1993: 12-4
  • 1994: 12-4
  • 1995: 12-4
  • 2014: 12-4
  • 2021: 12-5

The team's 70.5% win percentage ranks 14th in team history. Every other season on the above list ranks higher in win percentage with the 1968 and 1977 teams ranking highest (86%), then the 3 13-3 season (82%) and all the 12-4 seasons (75%). Nevertheless, considering all the questions entering training camp, I feel 99% of Cowboys fans would have been happy in August if you could guarantee them 12 wins and an NFC East division title.

Traditional statistics

Those who like points and yards and turnovers and don't care for advanced analytics will like most of these numbers, which shows the Cowboys' league rank in each metric:

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Based on traditional stats the 2021 Cowboys were one of the best offensive units in team history. It is the 6th time in team history the team has finished first in points scored, and first time in 41 years:

  • 1966
  • 1968
  • 1971
  • 1978
  • 1980

it is the eighth time in team history the Cowboys have finished first in yards gained:

  • 1966
  • 1968
  • 1969
  • 1971
  • 1974
  • 1977
  • 2019
  • 2021

Does anyone else remember the 2019 Cowboys being first in yards gained? I don't. And the reason is yards gained has little correlation to winning (as evidenced by that team's 8-8 record). This is the fourth time Dallas has finished first in both points and yards, and first time since 1971 (when they did it for the third time in six seasons):

  • 1966
  • 1968
  • 1971
  • 2021

Offensively the team finished in the top five of virtually every major metric. They were not top-5 in rushing yards or yards per attempt, but were top-10 in both. They were 11th in both turnovers and sacks allowed, which isn't great. But note they were 6th in sack percentage, which IMO is a more notable statistic.

Going into the season the hope was the Dallas offense could be elite and combine with an average defense to create a team capable of advancing in the post-season. By any traditional measure they succeeded in performing like an elite offense.

On the defensive side of the ball we have more nuanced numbers. We see top-5 results in the following categories:

  • Turnovers forced
  • Passer rating allowed
  • Completion percentage allowed
  • Adjusted net yards allowed per attempt

Note the significant variance between yards per attempt (where Dallas ranked 20th) and the adjusted net yards per attempt (3rd); this shows the impact the many interceptions and sacks Dallas recorded when teams attempted to pass. It's one reason why many consider ANY/A to be a much better measure of a pass defense than completion percentage or yards or even yards per attempt.

The biggest negative found anywhere in the above table are the total rushing yards allowed and rushing yards per attempt allowed. Both rank at or near the bottom half of the league. And that's a problem considering they're facing a 49ers' offense that ranks very high in both of those measures.

Now, these are all rather isolated statistics that, when combined give us two measures that correlate very highly with wins and losses:

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Our friend RockStar Matt wrote a compelling piece outlining how 45 Super Bowls have featured teams that ranked 1st or 2nd in point differential. That indicates there's an 82% probability Dallas or Buffalo will play in Super Bowl LVI. I have not done the research but my guess is that teams that have finished first or second in both point and turnover differential are:

  • Rare - it's a hard feat to pull off
  • Successful

The point here is by any combination of traditional statistics you come up with the 2021 Dallas Cowboys are among the best regular season teams in team history and a legit contender to advance far in the post-season.

Curmudgeons will rightly note that not all of those teams that ranked so high in the above rankings enjoyed post-season success. The 1968 team is a sobering reminder of how a dominating regular season can unravel in 60 minutes of football. Consider that team's overall rankings;

  • Points scored: 1st
  • Yards gained: 1st
  • Points allowed: 2nd
  • Yards allowed: 6th
  • Turnover differential: 4th

You can make a solid argument the 1968 Cowboys were the best regular season unit in team history. You cannot claim they were the best overall unit in team history because they got pummeled 31-20 by the Cleveland Browns in their first playoff game and thus no one remembers the team. Don Meredith completed only 3-of-9 passes with 3 interceptions and no touchdowns and retired after the season at the age of 30. An outstanding season ended in bitter disappointment for players and fans alike.

Still, I'd much rather be going into the playoffs with stats like the 2021 Cowboys than, say, the 2018 Cowboys who finished 22nd in points and yards gained, 12th in turnover differential and recorded a 0.9 average margin of victory.

Advanced statistics

Normally, after citing such stats those who prefer advanced statistics will chime in with "Yes, but....".

Not this year. That's because the advanced stats generally like this version of the Cowboys as much or more than the traditional stats.

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Choose your propeller head measure of choice...they all like the Cowboys. Football Outsider's DVOA ranks them first overall, 6th on offense, 2nd on defense and 6th on special teams. Pro Football Reference's Simple Rating System (based on margin of victory and strength of schedule) ranks Dallas 1st overall and on offense and 6th on offense. ESPN's FPI metric ranks them 4th overall and top 5-8 on offense, defense and special teams.

If there's one metric that, on the surface, doesn't like the Cowboys as much as the other it's Expected Points Added.

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We see here Dallas is merely "good" and not "elite". EPA considers the Dallas run game to be average and frankly I can't disagree with that. We'll see in a little while that over the final half of the season the run game struggled mightily. So if there's an area you want to fret over the inability to run the ball successfully is probably the biggest area of concern.

However, on the defensive side of the ball EPA very much likes the Cowboys:

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This tells us that overall and in the pass game Dallas was one of the very best teams in the league. However, we see that when it comes to defending the run Dallas was, again, mediocre. Some may fret over this because San Francisco is widely recognized for having an innovative and highly effective run game. However, EPA ranks San Francisco 9th in both rushing EPA/Play and rushing success rate. That's still very good but not elite.

Add it all up - win-loss record, points margin, turnover margin, yards gained and allowed, advanced statistics of a wide variety - it's virtually impossible to argue this Dallas team isn't a high quality unit.

Yes, I think they drew a difficult opponent but not an opponent they should be scared of or intimated by. Let's remember SF finished third in their division and lost seven games. They do enter the playoffs having won 7 of their last 9 but needed two overtimes to book those seven wins and had only a 3.8 overall margin of victory.

Still, San Francisco is a quality team. Their advanced metrics aren't quite as high as the Cowboys but they're quite good:

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If there's one area where Dallas seems to have a clear advantage it's on special teams. That's an area that traditionally has been a negative for the Cowboys. But a single play on special teams can make a huge difference.

Coaching: A-

Let me first say I was not super excited about bringing Mike McCarthy on as Cowboys head coach. I'd seen him largely as a passenger on the Aaron Rodgers Express through much of his career and never believed Green Bay's success could be strongly attributed to him.

What I do know is things have been different with this team since his arrival. Specifically, McCarthy's decision-making shows he trusts his players. He's been among the most aggressive coaches in the league on fourth downs ever since his arrival. My biggest issue with Jason Garrett as head coach is he repeatedly took the game out of his player's hands by choosing punts and field goals over his offense and otherwise conservative decision-making.

I'm a firm believer players instinctively understand whether their coaches believe in them. Imagine playing for a coach who allows you to go for it on 4th-and-5 from midfield in the middle of the 4th quarter of a 3-point game and one who punts every single time it's fourth down. Garret said he believed in his players but his actions over a ten year period illustrated - without a shred of doubt - he didn't believe in them.

That alone makes me like McCarthy. But there's so much more. The 2021 Cowboys currently are among the most healthy teams in the league (yay!). That hasn't always been the case. Simply go back to week 2. They entered that contest missing:

  • Demarcus Lawrence
  • Randy Gregory
  • La'el Collins
  • Donovan Wilson

All four would miss significant time throughout the season. So did others. The defensive line, in particular, played undermanned throughout the season. Number of games played:

  • Demarcus Lawrence: 7
  • Randy Gregory: 11
  • Neville Gallimore: 5
  • Trysten Hill: 6
  • Brent Urban: 6

Those are names that, at the beginning of the season, were expected to be major contributors. They missed a combined 50 games. They led to players like Osa Odighizuwa and Tarell Basham making a combined 18 starts.

Then you had Michael Gallup missing most of the first half of the season along with Tyron Smith and La'el Collins missing a combined 11 games resulting in 2020 whipping boy Terence Steele starting 12 games. Oh, and Dak Prescott missed a start.

The point is Dallas is healthy now but like most NFL teams had to navigate most of the season with backups playing a significant role. The fortuitous thing for the Cowboys is none of the key injured players suffered season-ending injuries (until Michael Gallups ACL injury in week 17).

Despite the injuries Dallas, as noted above, recorded one of their best regular seasons ever. This is simply not something we're accustomed to in Dallas. We're accustomed to the team floundering badly whenever a key player or two was out.

Add the fact Kellen Moore runs a modern offense with mis-direction and rub routes and a plethora of plays designed to put defenders in compromising positions. To that add a defensive coordinator who seemingly squeezed the most out of the ingredients provided him. Finally add a damn-the-torpedoes special teams coordinator whose unit would give up one big play then come back with a bigger play and you have, in my mind, the best coached Cowboys team since the Jimmy Johnson / Dave Wannestadt / Norv Turner triumvirate.

Week-to-week results

The team's week-to-week performance was not as consistent as some would hope. Whether looking at wins and losses or EPA or DVOA you see some wild fluctuations.

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I've been citing EPA all season long. Several interesting things about this chart to me:

  • Dallas won the EPA battle 13 of 17 times. Whoever won the EPA battle won the game 16 of 17 times; only the week 1 opening loss saw Dallas have an EPA advantage while losing the game. In short, the EPA winner is highly correlated with the outcome.
  • The second half of the season largely yo-yoed between the Cowboys blowing opponents out or losing. Dallas could not obtain a close victory in any close contests over the final 10 weeks of the season.

However, I would point out that Dallas has all the marking of a high quality team when it comes to overall results:

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We see Dallas was had 10 blowouts (margin of victory >8 points) and still managed to win more close games than they lost. Yes, they lost late season close games to the Raiders and Cardinals (in both cases, late game comebacks by the Cowboys fell short after falling behind early). But they also won games against Minnesota and New England that were close and in which the Cowboys trailed throughout much of the game:

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Since those games, however, their pattern has been pretty clear:

  • Get an early lead and dominate the opponent
  • Fall behind big, make a comeback but come up short

I noted after the Arizona game that Dallas has frequently had slow starts under Mike McCarthy, falling behind by double digits in nearly 40% of all games started by Dak:

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This is a major issue. And if anything truly scares me about the upcoming contest it's this scenario:

  • Dallas receives opening KO and ends up punting
  • SF drives for a TD
  • Dallas again punts
  • SF drives for a TD or FG

There's simply been too many times where for an entire quarter or 20 minutes or an entire half the Dallas offense is ineffective and the defense can't create turnovers and you look up and it's 16-3 with five minutes left in the first half. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to see that scenario because it's happened nearly 40% of the time under McCarthy.

For reference sake let's look at all the weekly results. Here's the Cowboys own EPA numbers (basically showing how well the offense played):

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Note that when the offense has positive EPA the team is 12-1.

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This chart should make you appreciate the Cowboys offensive EPA chart above. Dallas has forced opponent's into negative EPA ten times in 17 games. Note how many times the negative number is in double digits - that's a dominating defense. Admittedly, many of these occurred late in the season against inept offenses being quarterbacked by backups.

Turnovers really play an outsized role for the defense. When they generate them they're a dominating unit; when they don't they're extremely vulnerable.

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Note that in the four instances Dallas failed to record a turnover the opposing team recorded the following EPA numbers:

  • Minn: -11.1
  • Denver: +11.4
  • LV: +12.9
  • Ariz: 11.8

In short, when Dallas records turnovers the opponent generally ends up with negative EPA and Dallas wins fairly convincingly. But when they're unable to create turnovers opponents tend to have positive EPA. If Dallas can take the ball away Sunday a Cowboys' victory seems likely; it they can't take the ball away from SF expect the 49'ers to end up with a positive EPA number and a likely win.

Quarterback: B+

Dak Prescott, returning after a gruesome ankle injury in 2021, looked like an MVP candidate through the first half of the season. He led the team to a 6-1 record and ranked among the very best in the league at that point. However, he injured his calf on the final, game-winning play in overtime against the Patriots.

The injury forced Prescott to miss the next game against Minnesota and he returned the following week against Denver. He, and the rest of the team, would put up a stinker, falling behind 30-0 before a couple of garbage time touchdowns yielded the final 30-16 score. Unfortunately that would be a sign of things to come as Dak simply wasn't the same QB the rest of the season:

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Note, the above numbers are for primary QB play in each game. So it's all Dak other than the Minnesota game. The end numbers are mostly very good. The 104 passer rating will win a lot of games. But you can see, especially in the EPA numbers and the passer rating numbers the passing game struggled against Denver, Kansas City, New Orleans, Washington and the Giants.

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The odd thing is when Dak and the offense could get untracked they would thoroughly whip opponents, recording their top EPA numbers against Atlanta, Washington and Philadelphia. But too often the gauge would wildly swing the other direction and Dak would record negative EPA (Denver, KC, NO and first game against Washington). The passer rating and adjusted net yards per attempt numbers also reflect the schizophrenic performances:

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In fact, in five of his last eight and six of last nine games Dak recorded below average ANY/A numbers. If that Dak shows up Sunday the Cowboys will have virtually no chance of winning. Dak's highlights from the Eagles' game:

Wide receivers: B+

A group expected to be among the best in the league was indeed a potent force. Look at any Cowboys win and they usually played a key role. Sometimes the volume numbers weren't as big as hoped-for but the efficiency numbers were very good in most games.

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The group put up huge games against Tampa Bay, NE, Minnesota, Las Vegas and the finale against the Eagles' scrubs. They were efficient in games with not so big volume numbers against Philly (home game), Carolina, Giants (home), Atlanta and Arizona.

But they did not do as well as you'd expect against the Chargers, Chiefs, Saints, Football Team (road) and Giants (road). So, much like Dak, the overall numbers look quite good but too often this group was relatively ineffective.

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CeeDee Lamb (B+) emerged as the top-flight receiver he was touted to be out of college, finishing with more than 1,100 yards, six TDs and 9+ yards per attempt. But we see that six balls targeted for Lamb ended up as interceptions, five more than the three other primary receivers combined.

This amazing catch against the Eagles is very indicative of what Lamb brings to the table: outstanding contested ball skills, toughness, run after catch ability. Too often though, he and Dak did not seem on the same page. That's pretty disturbing after a full season of football. In addition Lamb had 8 drops, many of which seemed to come at key moments of games where the Dallas offense struggled.

Amari Cooper's (B+) numbers were not as high in volume as he's been in the past but we see they were very efficient. Note he had 16 fewer targets than Lamb but two more touchdowns; that's likely just randomness in play. Cooper has elite route running skills yet too often it seems he disappears for the offense.

Michael Gallup's week one injury provided Cedric Wilson (A) an opportunity and he took full advantage. The fourth year player certainly earned a second NFL contract that will likely pay him north of $15M. Good for him because he was outstanding all year long. His six touchdowns ranked tied for fourth among all Cowboys, his yards per catch were highest among all Cowboys as was his 131 passer rating.

Here we see his first touchdown catch against the Eagles.

Here he catches a deep ball on the run.

Here's his first TD against Philly.

And his second TD.

Not in the numbers above are the three passes Wilson completed for 88 yards. It was an outstanding breakout season for Wilson and it's nice to see a bottom-of-the-roster type player take advantage at the perfect time in his career to earn a big payday.

On the other end of the luck spectrum is Michael Gallup (B-). He's been a good number two receiver since his arrival in Dallas as a third round pick in 2018. His 2021 season, a contract year, was plagued by injuries. First came the knee injury against Tampa that knocked him out for half the season. Then in the penultimate regular season game he tore his ACL, ending his year.

When he was available he wasn't as productive as his previous years. The 56% catch rate was far below his 2019/2020 numbers as was his 89 passer rating. Gallup wasn't bad by any stretch but it was a disappointing season, both from a personal and team perspective.

Running backs: B-

Had we made these grades after the first five weeks of the season this would be an A+. Ezekiel Elliott (C-) and Tony Pollard (A-) were virtually unstoppable during that spell, routinely putting up 160+ rushing yards while averaging more than 5 yards per attempt.

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Since, however, the duo have struggled mightily. The Dallas run game ranked among the very worst in the league over the final half of the season. Since breaking out for back to back 100 yard games in weeks 4 and 5 Elliot has averaged:

  • 12.6 carries per game
  • 45.8 yards per game
  • 3.6 yards per attempt

Those are terrible numbers and frankly they match what my own eyes tell me: Zeke isn't even an average NFL running back at this point. The next time he runs past, around, over or through an opponent will be the first time in months. Per ProFootballReference.com he logged nine broken tackles on the season; that's one per 27 carrries or half the rate he logged over the previous three seasons.

He did score 12 times to lead the team and is an effective short-yardage runner. But when you compare his perfomace to Tony Pollard they are night and day.

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First, we see that Elliott got 100+ more carries. Pollard did miss two games so that plays a role in the carry numbers. We also see that as the season went on the number of carries tended to balance out evenly after Zeke got the lion's share early in the season:

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Yardage-wise we can see Elliott's ineffectiveness after September as he topped 50 yards only twice and one of those times was against the Eagles' backups.

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We see Pollard topped Elliott in yards every week from the Atlanta game through the first WFT contest. Which should give you some idea what the yards per attempt comparison is going to look like:

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The only game Elliott recorded notably better YPA numbers than Pollard was against Denver (when Pollard had four attempts). I mean you have one back who's putting up 5+ yards per attempt throughout most of the year and the other who's putting up fullback type numbers.

If I'm McCarthy I'm making Pollard my starting running back and Zeke is my switch-up back. One of the major reasons Elliott's YPA numbers are so poor is he never breaks long runs. Pollard, by comparison, seems a danger to break out at any moment. Remember, these numbers above are against the same opponents behind the same offensive line in similar game situations. It's so obvious to me that Pollard is the better running back it's bewildering the Dallas braintrust doesn't see it. And if Elliott's contract somehow plays into the decision-making then McCarthy will simply be another in a long line of Jerry Jones "yes men" who fails.

Yes, this JaQuan Hardy touchdown run was meaningless and against guys no one has heard of...but does anyone think Elliott scores a TD on the same play? I don't. And if your starting RB can't make plays that roster scrum make then we have a problem. This is probably the best run Elliott has made the last few months and while it's a good run it's nothing particularly special.

The Dallas offense can win without a dominant running game. It cannot win with a non-existent running game. Eight times this year Dallas averaged less than 4 yards per attempt; they need to at least be competent running the ball to go far in the playoffs.

Offensive line: B-

Running games are highly dependent upon the rest of the offense. If the QB and the passing game is ineffective teams can load the box and snuff out any running back, regardless of how good he is. If the offensive line can't open holes, again, the runner will struggle.

Well, Dallas has an effective passing attack. And yet the run game was virtually useless over the last two months of the season and I sure didn't see too many open running lanes. As a unit this group just wasn't very good at run blocking. Now, FootballOutsiders will tell you differently, with Dallas ranking 2nd in Adjusted Line Yards, 4th in RB Yards and 3rd in Stuffed rate.

I just don't see it. Maybe Elliott's even worse than I outlined above because if you have one of the top five offensive lines in run blocking you should be able to average more than 4 yards per attempt.

La'el Collins (C+), in particular, seemed to struggle down the stretch. Here we see him getting rag-dolled by some Eagles' backup.

Zack Martin (A+) is a wonder. He just earned his 5th first team All Pro selection in his 8th season. This is consistent with his career-long performance but considering the severe injury he suffered last season it's quite remarkable he just bounced back to play Hall-of-Fame level football snap in and snap out all season long. We are watching greatness in Martin so enjoy it.

Tyler Biadasz (B) began the season as the clear weak link on the line, struggling mightily with both power rushers and interior stunts. He has stabilized and is no longer an obvious down-to-down vulnerability. He's also not Travis Frederick in his prime, either. Still, for a fourth round pick to become an every game starter the performance is better than you could reasonably expect.

Connor Williams (C+) has long been a whipping boy for many Cowboys' fans. And there's reason for it but he's not as bad as many think. In fact, he's been pretty good this season except for being a magnet for holding calls. The Dallas OL led the league in total penalties and offensive holding calls. The number of big plays negated or drives stalled due to holding calls on the line (and Williams in particular) is head-spinning. Dallas recorded 31 holding penalties with Williams accounting for 11 by himself (easily tops in the league).

This led to his benching midway through the season. Now, I don't mind the benching because he was struggling and you had a viable replacement in Connor McGovern (C). But McGovern quickly proved to be a significant drop off from Williams and found himself back on the bench. All of this shuffling probably didn't help the offensive line's performance.

Tyron Smith (B+) had a very Tyron Smith-like year. When he was on the field he performed well overall, if not up to his once-dominant standards. He too has suffered a number of holding calls and, unlike his All Pro years, will get beat on the edge occasionally, But the real issue is he can't stay healthy and missed six games.

This led to Terence Steele (B+) starting 13 games, split between left and right tackle. Steele played very well at RT in place of the suspended Collins early in the season. But when asked to move to LT after Smith was injured he struggled, much as he did his rookie year. Let's remember Steele was an undrafted rookie in 2020 and asking to start every week at one position is a big ask; asking to then move to other side and play against the league's best edge rushers was always going to be troublesome.

Tight ends: B

On it's face this grade may seem harsh. I mean Dalton Schultz had a truly breakout season catching the ball, ending up with 78 catches on 104 targets (75%) for 808 yards (7.7 YPT), 8 TDs and a 118 passer rating. Those aren't elite TE production numbers but they rank among the top 8 in the league. FootballOutsiders ranked Schultz 4th in DYAR and 5th in DVOA. Against the Eagles we saw him catch not one but two touchdowns, each pretty good examples of how he contributes.

So what's the issue? Simply, Schultz isn't much of a blocker. You can go back to opening night when Schultz badly whiffed on a goal line block attempt and what should have been a Cowboys' TD was instead a FG. This was a problem throughout the season. Dallas is better when they can team Blake Jarwin (INC) with Schultz because when Schultz is the lone TE teams have no fear of the run game. Jarwin returned from a lengthy injury in week 18 and might be the secret key that unlocks this team's offensive potential (we can dream, right?).

The season long numbers are still impressive, however, especially the efficiency numbers:

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Schultz is going to get paid in the off-season and it's unlikely he's paid by the Cowboys. Again, great production from a fourth round pick as he's been really good the last two years.

Defensive line: A-

This group entered the season with lots of uncertainty but also some promise. Demarcus Lawrence (B) was the only really known entity. He would be teamed with Randy Gregory (B+), who has always shown great athleticism on the edge but whose career has been derailed by suspensions and injury throughout. Inside veterans like Brent Urban (F) and Carlos Watkins (C-) were expected to solidify a unit that was abysmal in 2020. Beyond that you had a a group of rookies and youngsters who had yet to establish themselves.

Then Lawrence got injured in week one, Gregory was sidelined due to COVID and suddenly the defensive line looked hopelessly overmatched. Dan Quinn then made the decision to start his rookie off-ball linebacker at defensive end and he might as well have been Zeus shooting a lightning bolt through the defensive line and the entire defensive unit.

Micah Parsons (A+) is the most sensational rookie defender the Cowboys have had in memory; there's no one I can think of who had the same impact. He carried the defense with his pass rush and overall play during those early months when the line was extremely short-handed. Fellow rookie Osa Odighizuwa (B+) also proved better than expected at defensive tackle (although he faded a bit as the season wore on).

Fourth year player Dorrance Armstrong (B), who had never shown much in his first three seasons, also emerged as a more effective player when forced into action. He's not all that effective when asked to play 50+ snaps but as a third or fourth edge situation edge rusher he's contributed. He's also been a threat on special teams, blocking one punt for a TD and coming close several other times.

Others who got fairly significant playing time included Terrell Basham (B-) and the returning Trysten Hill (C) and yet another rookie Chauncey Golston (B). If, at the beginning of the season we'd known Basham (579), Osa (573), Armstrong (454) and Golston (410) would lead the team in defensive line snaps I'd assume the season had been a disaster. But Dan Quinn somehow made that work.

The one trademark of this group is they just made plays, including scoring four touchdowns:

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Parsons obviously sparked this group but there's no question it's the trio of he, Lawrence and Gregory that pose the biggest threat to opponents. Lawrence played less than 250 snaps yet recorded 3 sacks, five tackles for loss, 7 QB hits, 5 passes defensed, 2 forced fumbles and scored a TD on an interception. Here we see him getting one of those sacks.

Other highlights from the season finale included this Terrel Basham sack and this Neville Gallimore tackle for loss.

Linebackers: B-

I've constantly struggled to grade this group. Parsons often lines up as and edge defender, the team often uses only 2 LBers (and sometimes only 1). Leighton Vander Esch (B-) has been a constant but beyond him we've seen everyone from Parsons to Keanu Neal (C-) to Luke Gifford (C) take snaps. While Parsons has been electric the rest of the group has been relatively anonymous. That's not all bad because they haven't been constantly exposed as they were in 2020.

LVE hasn't made a lot of plays this year but he was on the field for 682 snaps for a good defense and that's worth noting. This was his first interception since his rookie year. Keanu Neal looked like a find early in the season but faded badly as the year went on. It's likely, had he not been injured, that Jabril Cox would currently be playing in Neal's spot.

Secondary: A

This group was largely seen as the weakest and most vulnerable of the entire roster when the season started. Now it looks like a young, dynamic group that could be a strength moving forward. It's not a shutdown group, by any means, but it is a play-making group.

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Of course the biggest play-maker is Trevon Diggs (A) who recorded the most interceptions by any NFL player in the last 41 years. Lots of "analysts" have noted Diggs gave up a lot of yards, yet opposing QBs recorded a 55.8 passer rating, which is outstanding. Diggs teamed with Anthony Brown (B) and Jourdan Lewis (B) to give Dallas the best corner play they've enjoyed in years. Honestly, I think a lot of that simply has to do with better coaching.

A year ago, no one was giving Brown or Lewis credit for being very good. Same with Chidobe Awuzie who (checks notes) became a 2nd Team All Pro his first season away from Dallas. Pretty serious indictment on previous defensive coordinator Mike Lynn when every player magically improves when he no longer coaches them.

Brown combined with Jourdan Lewis to snag six interceptions. That gave the corner trio 17 total, or more than 21 teams. It's also more than any Cowboys team has recorded since 2010 other than the 2014 team (18).

To those three you can add Jayron Kearse (B+) contributing the best safety play Dallas has enjoyed in years. Kearse solidified a unit that has seemingly been a perpetual problem. He would add two fumble recoveries to his two interceptions to record four turnovers on the season. Again, playmakers!

Add all the numbers and the secondary recorded 22 INTs, forced four fumbles and recovered three more. They allowed opposing QBs only a 58% completion percentage and a 77.5 passer rating. The advanced numbers on each player shows one area of concern is yards after catch.

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Perhaps most interestingly is two Cowboys who've seen relatively little playing time could be on the field quite a bit in the playoffs. Safety Donovan Wilson (C) was plagued by injuries and started only 3 games. Late in the season, however, taking more snaps. Kelvin Joseph (INC), the team's second round pick, rarely saw the field for a variety of reasons until recently. Given snaps in weeks 17 and 18, however, he looked much like the promising youngster the team thought they drafted. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to see him getting on the field if Anthony Brown or Jourdan Lewis struggles in a game (Joseph would take Brown's place if he's struggling and Brown would take Lewis' slot position if Lewis is struggling).

Overall there's simply no question this group came up big-time all season long and were a key factor in the team's top-level defensive results.

Special teams: B

John Fassell's group is not for the feint of heart. They'll make you grind your teeth in exasperation then cheer in exhilaration, sometimes on the same play. As noted above FootballOutsider's DVOA ranked the group 6th overall. This despite place-kicker Greg Zuerlein (C) missing a total of 12 kicks (6 FGs and 6 XPs). Zuerlein's misses proved costly in three close losses as he left 17 points on the field in three games Dallas lost by a combined nine points.

There were times the punt and kick-off return teams gave up more yards than you'd like to see. And they were penalized on so many kick and punt returns I just assumed they'd get a penalty every time the opponent kicked. These penalties often put Dallas on long fields late in games when they needed to score (Arizona, Las Vegas and New England, for example).

But any negatives were more than offset by a group that - stop me if you've heard this before - makes big plays.

Dallas recorded four blocked punts, including two that resulted in Cowboys' touchdowns. They also added the team's first kick-off return since 2008 (Felix Jones against the Eagles). I'll be honest, I'm of the opinion teams should never run kick-offs out because the runner rarely gets beyond the 25 and penalties often result in the team starting inside the 15. But when you can turn a game with a single return...well.

It's not hard to imagine special teams deciding a post-season game. Either in the form of a big play like a punt block or Greg Zuerlein missing a 38 yard field goal. Like I said, not a group for the weak of heart.

Summary:

I long ago grew tired of the "championships are the only thing that matters" crowd. I mean, yes, what happens in the regular season will be forgotten if Dallas gets outed in the wild card round. But you can't get to the post-season without a quality regular season. And while the destination is the goal the journey makes up the largest part of the season.

And this was an exceedingly fun journey. This team entertained in more ways than a fan could rationally expect. A dynamic, high-scoring offense. A play-making defense that was a threat to score on any play. A roller-coaster ride on special teams that sometimes made you want to puke and other times jump up and down in delirium.

I mean, if you're not entertained and somewhat satisfied by what the Cowboys have done in the 17 regular season games of the 2021 NFL season I question why you're a football fan.

(Insert obligatory note that none of this matters when the post-season starts because apparently some people think the obvious has to be pointed out).

This was a fun team and one that has the potential to deliver fans their first championship in 26 years. Or simply write another disappointing chapter in the Cowboys lengthy "Playoff disappointments" book. We'll find out soon enough.

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