The Dallas Cowboys finished with a 12-5 record last season, good enough for the #3 seed in the NFC. Sure, things didn’t go the way we hoped in the postseason, but that doesn’t change the fact that they were a good football team. In fact, they were the most efficient team in the league during the 2021 season. How’s that, you say?
We could mention that the Cowboys' offense scored more points than any other team in the league. They gained more yards than any other offense as well. We could mention the defense was tops in the league in takeaways. Those things are certainly important, but unfortunately, statistics like that are dependent on so many variables that don’t always offer a very accurate representation of how good the team really is.
Luckily, there is a stat that does. Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) is a metric that looks at every single play, compares it to how other teams perform in that same situation, and then spits out a percentage that represents how much better or worse they are than the league average of all the other teams in that same situation. If a team has an offensive DVOA of 5% then that means they perform 5% better than the average and if they are at -10%, then they are 10% worse. For defense, the negative numbers represent better than average, whereas positive numbers are worse.
DVOA is used to determine a team’s efficiency for offense, defense, and special teams. They can even use those percentages and derive a team’s estimated win percentage. Their values are so accurate in explaining how well a team should perform that their calculated win estimation is usually very close to the actual result. In fact, if you look at how the Cowboys performed using DVOA over the last ten years, you would come up with an estimated win total of 92.2. Their actual win total in that span is 90 wins.
DVOA serves as a “truth serum” for what’s really going on and can paint an accurate picture of what changes from year to year. Let’s put this to the eye test by examining the Cowboys' DVOA values over the last ten years courtesy of the great work over at Football Outsiders.
Looking back we can see things we already know. The defense was bad back in the early days of the Jason Garrett era, and we can see some nice improvement over the years with the exception of the failed Mike Nolan experiment. Offensively speaking, the team has been pretty fantastic. The anomalies occurred whenever they lost their starting quarterback for an extended period of time as well as in 2018 when a viable wide receiving group was absent until a mid-season trade delivered Amari Cooper.
Looking at these numbers, we see that the Cowboys were the top DVOA team last season. Just like the other seasons, there were good reasons to explain the Cowboys' shift from the previous season. The one we expected was from the offense that saw the return of Dak Prescott. The one we didn’t expect was from the defense. With the additions of Dan Quinn and Micah Parsons, the Cowboys had their best defensive DVOA over the last ten seasons and it wasn’t even close. Combine that with the improvements on special teams since the arrival of John Fassel, and suddenly the Cowboys are tops in the league.
Last year marks the first time in that span that the Cowboys finished in the top 10 in offense, defense, and special teams. It’s been a long time since the Cowboys have had quality coordinators for each unit across the board, so that could have something to do with it.
Now, the question begs - what will they look like this upcoming season? Prior to free agency and the draft, Football Outsiders offered their way-too-early predictions for the 2022 season. Here are the top 10 teams:
Will the Cowboys again be the most efficient team in the league? When we lay everything out on the table, let’s examine the likeliness of them holding down one of the top spots...
Cohesive coaching staff
We were all expecting big changes this past offseason as both Kellen Moore and Dan Quinn interviewed for head coaching jobs, but both are returning. This is a very large step to seeing some DVOA consistency. In short, there shouldn’t be any meaningful shifts attributed to coaching changes like are sometimes seen in these values.
The Dak Factor
The Cowboys' offense scored the most points and gained the most yards last year, but we know they had their struggles in the second half so seeing them finish 6th overall with a DVOA of 13.6% actually makes sense. But did you know that before Dak injured his calf, the Cowboys' offense had a DVOA of 24.9%? They were 6.4% the rest of the way.
When we look forward, what DVOA is more likely? A healthy Dak in a Kellen Moore offense has been rather successful in what limited time those two things have existed simultaneously.
We hear people question how the Cowboys can get over the hump without having made any big shakeups to their roster, but if we trust DVOA, then we don’t need them to get better. We just need them to not get worse. The losses of Amari Cooper, La’el Collins, and Randy Gregory are legitimate concerns, but just how much will their absence hurt the team?
How much of a downgrade will the trio of CeeDee Lamb, Michael Gallup (when he eventually returns), and Jalen Tolbert be from the group they had last year? Keep in mind that Cooper is coming off the statistically worst season of his career in terms of receptions and yards in all seasons where he’s started more than 75% of the games.
Gregory had a solid season last year, but he hasn’t played a full season since he entered the league seven years ago in 2015. With the super-talented Micah Parsons having his sights set on the NFL sack record, just how much will they miss Randy?
And as far as Collins goes, the team already demonstrated that they like what they have in the youngster Terence Steele as his play relegated LC to the bench at times last year.
Of these key departures, the loss of Cooper is the only one that raises an eyebrow and that’s because of how bad the offense was in 2018 before he arrived. Granted, a seasoned Lamb, a lively Gallup, and a high upside rookie Tolbert are considerable upgrades to that WR group a few years ago, so the chances of the offense falling into purgatory seem unlikely.
Even if the Cowboys return another impressive DVOA showing, that doesn’t automatically translate to playoff success. Cowboys fans know this first hand. But it still has to feel good to see that the team should be on a path to remaining one of the league's most efficient teams. They can’t have postseason success without getting there first, and all signs are pointing to them being very capable of getting there.