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“Regression to the mean” predicts bad things for the Cowboys in 2022

Outstanding performances are seldom repeated in the NFL.

NFL: Washington Football Team at Dallas Cowboys
Don’t think that the turnovers will still come in bunches.
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

2021 was not just a disappointing season for the Dallas Cowboys. It is in many ways baffling. The team had a 12-5 regular season record and cruised to the NFC East title, which seems at odds with the incompetence and impotence they displayed against the San Francisco 49ers in the playoffs. Their offense led the league in yards from scrimmage and points scored. The defense was much improved from the previous year, giving up the seventh fewest points in the league and taking the ball away more than any other team. The Cowboys scored more than 40 points in five games, and exceeded 50 twice. Yet all they could do with those strong components was get embarrassed in the Wild Card round.

After disappointment like that, what fans really want is reason to hope for things to be better this coming season. But don’t look to those outstanding stats from last year. Almost all of them are going to be worse.

While coaching changes, roster moves, or how they do in the draft all are factors, there is something else that really points to this. It is a basic principle of statistics called regression toward the mean. I know some eyeballs are threatening to roll back into heads at the mere mention of the “s” word there, but this is a very real thing. For those unfamiliar with the term, in the NFL context it means that when you examine how an NFL team performs one year, if the results are near one extreme or the other, they will most likely be much closer to the average the following season.

We discussed all of these ideas on the latest episode of Ryled Up on the Blogging The Boys podcast network. Make sure to subscribe to our podcast network so you don’t miss any of our shows! Apple devices can subscribe here and Spotify users can subscribe here.

For a quick and likely familiar example, take the Washington Soon To Be Named Football Team. In 2020, with the rest of the NFC East a mess, they got to the playoffs largely because of the strong performance of their defense. They were second best in the league in yards allowed and fourth in points given up, and had a rising star in Chase Young. That performance was why some pegged them to repeat as division champions. It clearly did not work out that way. Instead of being at the very top of the stats, they were eleventh in yards allowed, and all the way down at 25th in points per game. The regression was real.

It is almost certainly going to be real for the Cowboys. It is likely to be very clear on defense. Not only will high rankings move towards the mediocre, defense is the most variable part of team performance. It is far more influenced by the quality of the opponent than offensive stats. Washington accumulated those gaudy stats in large part because they had their six games against the rest of the NFCE, which, in technical terms, sucked. That is unfortunately also one big reason why the Cowboys put up better defensive numbers last year. Expect them to slide backwards, although hopefully not as badly as the WFT did in scoring defense.

While Dallas’ defense was stingy with points, they still surrendered a lot of yards. They only ranked 19th in that category. One reason for that disparity was the takeaways, which frequently cut long drives short and of course denied scoring opportunities. Sadly for the coming season’s prospects, takeaways are one of the most chance-driven elements of the game. It is difficult to maintain any consistency there even with talent. This is something that applies to individuals as well as teams. Trevon Diggs became an All Pro because of his eleven interceptions. He is still very capable of being one of the best in the league in 2022, but it is far more likely he winds up with five or so picks on the year. Before you decry that take, remember that five picks tied for fourth best in the NFL last year. Eleven picks is a true example of extreme results for a season.

Further complicating things for the Cowboys is that it looks increasingly likely that Dan Quinn will leave for a head coaching job. He is one of the hottest candidates and almost all of the teams with openings want to interview him, if they haven’t already. His replacement would likely want his own assistants to come in with him. That means change. Quinn did the same thing when he got to Dallas with great success. But, just like all other things, that was a bit of an extreme, and the results of another change at defensive coordinator should trend back towards the league average.

Offense is a more sustainable thing than defense, but here there is a different trend to worry about for the Cowboys. That is how there was a clear falloff in the consistency of their performance after the midpoint of the season. They were on a bit of a tear for four games, scoring 35 or more points in each. Then Dak Prescott had his calf injury. Suddenly they were wildly inconsistent. They managed just 16 against the Denver Broncos, nine against the Kansas City Chiefs, and just 21 against a bad New York Giants team. There are a lot of suspects in this, including Prescott himself, the receivers, the running game, the offensive line, and of course offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. None of those have readily apparent answers. That means there is also no reason to expect Dallas to be anywhere near the top in offense this fall.

A big part of getting to 12 wins last year was that they swept the NFC East, which as already mentioned was still rather dismal despite the Philadelphia Eagles also making the playoffs. There is an overdue regression there, in this case toward becoming a more average division - which would be a real improvement. The Eagles have three first-round picks and the Giants two, so they might be better. The Cowboys currently only have seven picks overall, with a ton of holes to fill due to the large number of pending free agents. They have some cap manipulation they have to do just to get under the limit for the offseason, which will just have Stephen Jones spending even more time in the free agent bargain bin this year. That is another reason things may slide back for the team. Will McClay has been doing very well of late, but even there, the strong results may be one more place things may get more average.

It is going to be hard for the annual resurgence of hope to come around this year. We need to temper our expectations. There is always a chance that things can work out. The coming schedule looks weak, and Dallas may still get to the playoffs just because of it. But don’t let yourself get sucked into thinking this will be a strong contender in 2022. Statistics warn us otherwise.