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Cowboys defense will likely regress because of turnovers and opposing quarterbacks

The Cowboys defense reached lofty heights in 2021, but can it continue?

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Dallas Cowboys Training Camp
He looked like a genius in 2021, but may have just been very lucky.
Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Dan Quinn is arguably the most popular coach on the staff of the Dallas Cowboys. That certainly includes the players, who respond to his energy and hands-on coaching style. Fans may be even more supportive. After years of defensive struggles, Quinn came in last year and got the Dallas defense playing well and was a key element in the 12-5 regular season record.

Here’s the rub. That great improvement last season may have been more an illusion than real. And like most illusions, it is probably going to vanish.

If you look at raw statistics, they don’t look great for the Cowboys. They were only 19th in total yards allowed in the league. That breaks down to 20th in passing yards and 16th in rushing. The only thing that reflects well on the Cowboys is scoring defense, where they were seventh best.

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Those seem somewhat contradictory. If Dallas is allowing other teams to move the ball well enough to have them in the bottom half of the rankings, how can they be so much nearer the top in scoring defense? Well, that probably comes down to one other little stat. The Cowboys had the most takeaways and tied for the best turnover margin in the league, intercepting the ball 26 times and getting eight fumbles. Taking the ball away clearly kills scoring chances for the opponent and was probably the reason Dallas looked so good in points allowed. Trevon Diggs was the big story with his league leading 11 picks, but clearly he had a lot of help. Given that Diggs is just entering his third year and Dallas brought back almost all of the defensive starters from last season, they should continue to take the ball away at a high rate.

Sorry. That is a false conclusion. Turnovers are one of the most chance driven parts of football. In other words, they rely on a certain amount of luck over skill.

You probably have heard that before. You might have some skepticism about the assertion. But there are plenty of sources that assert this, based on statistical analysis. One recent look at what this means was an article during last season at 538. It was a snapshot during week 12 and it specifically was looking for which teams were both lucky and good at turnovers. There is one way skill comes into play in things. Fumbles are indeed almost entirely random. But interceptions are strongly influenced by one player on the field at the time.

Throwing picks in the NFL — and avoiding them — appears to be something under the control of the quarterback to at least some degree. Interception rate shows some stability from year to year at the player level, indicating that the ability to avoid or create turnovers through the air is a skill, and Pro Football Focus charts a statistic it calls “turnover-worthy plays” for each quarterback snap in the league that’s even less influenced by randomness.2 Still, there’s a large residual luck component in interceptions, and we wanted a way to measure it to help identify which teams have been the most fortunate with interceptions so far this season.

Since fumbles accounted for slightly less than a quarter of the takeaways for the Cowboys last season, regression is most likely to happen in interceptions for this season. In light of the impact QBs have on this, we might get an idea of their chances at picking off opponents in light of who they should face this season. The article at 538 included a chart of how many turnover-worthy plays each quarterback had. It is only for part of the season, but it is a good enough sample size to help us project.

Here is the list of expected quarterbacks for the season, conveniently compiled earlier by RJ Ochoa.

Many probably look at the last name on the list and think that is a great opportunity. However, Wentz was greatly improved last season, and actually had the fewest turnover-worthy plays through the first twelve weeks. Here is all the QBs coming up ranked at 538.

  • Wentz 1
  • Brady 4
  • Rodgers 9
  • Ryan 11
  • Cousins 14
  • Hurts 16
  • Lawrence 18
  • Stafford 19
  • Jones 21
  • Goff 22
  • Fields 24
  • Burrow 26
  • Tannehill 30
  • Mills not ranked as Tyrod Taylor was starting then

Seven of them were in the upper half of all QBs, and eight were in the bottom. That is pretty average. Even with the clear ball-hawking skills Diggs and others demonstrated last season, it will still be a big challenge to not regress to the mean.

Without another big year in takeaways, Dallas may have a much more average year, particularly in points scored against. History points to the regression.

That means Quinn will have to get the defense playing much better to compensate. Given that his staff returns intact from last year, they must improve their coaching and have a lot of work to do. Further, they do not have another unicorn this year like Micah Parsons. Teams now know they have to account for him. To a lesser degree, they also now know what Jayron Kearse brings to the table. The Cowboys had a certain element of surprise with those two. That is gone.

Overall, things may be better than just looking at the defense indicates. The big thing is that Dak Prescott is fully healthy. If he stays that way, he could elevate the offense. Unfortunately, they also face some big questions about the offensive line and the receiving corps. So in balance, the defense has to improve in the basics and not rely on very unpredictable takeaways. It is a bigger task than many might think.

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