One of the biggest shockers last season for the Dallas Cowboys was the remarkable improvement from their defense. After surrendering a franchise record 473 points in 2020, the defense actually finished in the top seven in points allowed last year. The switch in defensive coordinators from Mike Nolan to Dan Quinn was monumental as the Cowboys' defense went from looking absolutely dreadful to quite impressive at times.
One of the most glorious aspects of the defense last year was just how often they took the ball away. The Cowboys led the league with 34 takeaways. What is amazing about that feat is that this has been an area where this team has struggled in seasons past. For example, during Rod Marinelli’s last five years as defensive coordinator, the Cowboys never finished in the top 15 in takeaways, including finishing last in the league in 2015.
While the newfound success in this department is rather satisfying, the team will inevitably experience some form of regression when it comes to creating turnovers; it’s a statistical improbability that the Cowboys will continue to take the ball away at that same frequency. That has fans a little concerned. If an expected drop in takeaways awaits, what does that mean for the success of the team overall?
Looking back over the last 20 years, there’s actually some data that should make us feel rather good about the future. The first piece of evidence we want to point out is that points allowed, not takeaways, have had a greater influence on the Cowboys' ability to win football games. You might think that takeaways and points allowed go hand in hand, but that is not always the case.
Every double-digit win season the Cowboys have had over the last 20 years has been when the defense finished in the upper half in points allowed, with most of them coming with a top seven or better finish. Additionally, how the team finished in takeaways didn’t seem to have such a huge impact on the team’s overall success. That’s not to say creating turnovers is not important. It absolutely is. But even more important than possession is keeping teams out of the endzone, and the Cowboys have shown that they can be successful in that area without finishing high in takeaways.
Having a tenacious defense opens the door for takeaways, but at the same, this stat can be a little random. It’s not just good defenses that contribute to them, but also sloppy offenses on the other side. And offenses tend to be more mistake-prone when they are playing on their heels and forced to take more risks. So, it shouldn’t be all that surprising to see defensive takeaways correlate with how good their own offense is playing. At least that is what we’re seeing in Dallas over the years.
As you can see, takeaways line up a lot better with how many points the Cowboys' offense is scoring than it does with the number of points they allow. When the offense was absolutely dismal in 2015 when Tony Romo’s backups were atrocious, the team finished dead last in takeaways. Conversely, last year when the Cowboys had the no. 1 scoring offense in the league, it was raining turnovers.
In conclusion, while the team is very likely to see a decrease in takeaways this upcoming season, don’t expect them to completely disappear. If the offense plays as we expect them to, the opportunities for takeaways will still be there. Additionally, even if we do see a dip in turnovers, it doesn’t necessarily mean the defense will be giving up more points. And if the defense can find a way to again finish in the top 10 in points allowed, then their chance of having a winning season is pretty darn good. Regression will happen, but Dak Prescott and Micah Parsons playing football will happen. And Dan Quinn coaching the defense will also happen. These factors collectively are very important reasons why the Cowboys' defense will still be fun to watch in 2022.