If there is one thing that has gone right in Dallas since the playoff loss against the 49ers, it is that the Cowboys were able to bring back Dan Quinn for another year. After enduring seasons of Mike Nolan, Monte Kiffin, and Rob Ryan, Quinn was a breath of fresh air. He truly elevated the defense instead of simply relying on the “bend-don’t-break” method.
However, as good as Dan Quinn has proved himself to be, we shouldn’t expect the defense to take another leap in 2022. In fact, a regression to the mean is almost inevitable, which isn’t an indictment of Quinn. We should consider what is likely to happen to this defense naturally, so we can properly evaluate Quinn after next season.
What will defensive regression mean?
If you want one, sure-fire prediction for the 2022 Dallas Cowboys, it is that the takeaways are going to decrease. On a per-game basis, the Cowboys defense generated two turnovers per game in the 2021 regular season, the best in the NFL.
However, since 2016, there have been seven other teams that have forced two takeaways per game or more in a given season. Only three of those teams finished in the top half of the league in turnovers forced the following season. Of those seven teams, they averaged a decrease of 13.7 takeaways in the next season (a .86 decrease per game).
So, what would this mean for Dallas? What if we remove those turnovers from 2021, how would that impact the defense’s performance?
Well, let’s say the Cowboys face an average decrease in takeaways forced, similar to those seven other teams that produced more than two takeaways per game in a season. That would mean we should expect the Dallas defense to generate 1.14 turnovers per game in 2022. This equates to 19 takeaways in a 17-game season, a sharp decline from the 34 produced in 2021.
But we can’t just assume that because the Cowboys don’t get a turnover, it automatically results in a touchdown for the opposing team. Instead, we can use the average drive result for the Dallas defense in 2021.
For example, this past season the Cowboys allowed a touchdown on 18.2% of their opponents' drives (the fourth-best rate in the league) and a field goal on another 14.3% of drives. Inversely, Dallas forced their opponents into punting or turning the ball over on downs 37.9% of the time.
So, now we know that Dallas’ opponents should get an extra 15 possessions over the course of the season since takeaways will be less frequent, and we know the likely result of these possessions. Thus, on these 15 possessions, the expectation is that opposing offenses will:
- Score three touchdowns
- Kick two field goals
- Punt or turn the ball over on downs six times
The other four possessions will likely end in a miscellaneous manner such as the end of the first half, the end of the game, a missed field goal, a safety, or a blocked punt. Keep in mind these are simple estimations.
That comes out to an extra 27 points in 2022 the Cowboys will be expected to allow given their natural turnover regression. This past season, Dallas allowed 21.1 points per game, good for seventh in the NFL. But if you then include the extra 27 points, that number jumps to 22.7 points per game allowed. This past season, 22.7 points allowed per game would fall all the way to nineteenth in the league.
Now, at first glance ranking as the nineteenth defense in points per game allowed seems dire. However, there are a couple of factors we need to consider:
- The Dallas defense allowed 29.6 points per game in 2020, meaning that even if the takeaways were normalized in 2021, this is still a significantly improved defense. What we witnessed this past season was true defensive development, it wasn’t a completely inflated performance due to takeaways.
- Additionally, if the Cowboys had allowed 22.7 points in 2020, they would fall as the tenth best defense in this metric. This past year was a down year for scoring in general. Assuming offenses will improve to the mean, 22.7 should be more than enough to keep Dallas competitive.
And we should not dismiss the most important factor - the likelihood of general improvement across the board. Depending on how free agency goes, the Cowboys’ best defenders are likely to be on the team again next season (hopefully Jayron Kearse and Randy Gregory are retained).
Young players such as Micah Parsons, Osa Odighizuwa, Trevon Diggs, Kelvin Joseph, Neville Gallimore, and maybe even Jabril Cox will have another offseason to train with Dan Quinn. It is difficult to believe we won’t see a noticeable improvement in their pure defensive performance given their age and the coach responsible for developing them.
The implication is that, although they might not be forcing turnovers, the rate they force opposing offenses into punting or turning the ball over on downs might continue to increase. That is significantly more meaningful than generating turnovers, given the scary proposition of relying on takeaways.
So here is the bottom line, the takeaways are going to decrease. Turnovers forced per game will decline anywhere from .4 to 1.1. However, if Dan Quinn is able to develop the arsenal of young talent on the Cowboys' defense, we shouldn’t expect a complete collapse.
This is all predicated on Dan Quinn being the coach we all expect him to be. Don’t panic about turnovers decreasing but be wary about the potential for an increase in points per game that drops the Cowboys ranking by several spots. Just another question mark to consider as we head into a murky offseason.