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Dak's opponents in 2023: a story of cupcakes and cream puffs

The Cowboy's performance the last 7 games has led many people to declare that Dak Prescott is a MVP candidate. However, some fans seem to think Dak has been inflating his numbers against inferior opponents. The numbers tell an interesting story.

DVOA -- THE METRIC BEING USED

All NFL statistics are flawed in one way or another (and oftentimes multiple ways). However, for this exercise I have chosen DVOA, and all of the numbers that I used are found here. A description of how DVOA is calculated is found here. DVOA is represented both as a ranking and as a percentage. For each season, the ratings are normalized so that 0% represents league average. A positive DVOA is good for the offense and a negative DVOA is good for the defense. Total DVOA is Offense DVOA + Special Teams DVOA – Defense DVOA. The charts I have presented include both ranking and percentage. For ease of understanding the third chart, I changed Defense DVOA to switch negative to positive and vice versa -- in other words, the higher the number, the better the team and the defense.

When evaluating a QB, I looked at both the Defense DVOA and Total DVOA. I believe Total DVOA has some additional value as it is easier for a QB to play a good defense when the opposing team's offense is bad than if the opposing team's offense is good. The Jets are a good example in 2023. Scoring only 14 points against the Jets in 2023 would have led to 8 victories to just 4 losses. Accordingly, a QB can play more efficient and take less risk when playing against a team with a bad offense.


All of the DVOA rankings were refreshed as of this morning, December 4, 2023, and include all games played so far (excluding tonight's Monday night game). I've included 24 QBs for each chart. Each QB has started at least 10 games in 2023. I excluded QBs who have played less games as they are more likely to have an unbalanced schedule. I also included 4 additional data points: Dak in 2021, Dak in 2022, Dak's first 5 games of 2023, and Dak's last 7 games of 2023.

DESCRIPTION OF THE CHARTS

To generate the numbers displayed in the four charts, I took the most recent DVOA numbers for each team against which a QB played against in the season and averaged out the numbers.

The first chart is the strength of schedule played so far in 2023 (as of December 4, 2023 – excluding the Monday night game) and includes two data points for each QB: Total DVOA ranking and Defense DVOA ranking. The data is sorted by Defense DVOA ranking. The second chart is just Total DVOA ranking. For both the first and second charts, the higher the number (ranking), the worst the team.

The third and fourth charts are similar to the first and second charts except that I have used the raw DVOA percentage and Defense DVOA percentage instead of rankings. In this instance, the higher the percentage, the better the team. The first and third charts include both Total DVOA and Defense DVOA, whereas the second and fourth charts include only Total DVOA.

Chart 1

Chart 2


Chart 3

Chart 4

GENERAL OBSERVATIONS

The AFC has been harder conference to play in this year. 7 out of the 8 toughest schedules list above have been for AFC QBs – the lone exception being Mathew Stafford. This is consistent with the AFC's current .561 winning percentage against NFC teams – the highest percent since 2009.

AFC East and NFC East QBs (Dak, Tua, and Allen) have had the easiest schedules. This is not surprising as the conferences combined have 4 of the 7 worst teams in the NFL (Patriots, Jets, Giants, and WFT) and play one another.

As would be expected, most QBs are hovering fairly close to average (16.5 ranking or 0%) in terms of the strength of played schedule.

DAK OBSERVATIONS

What should immediately stand out is that, in 2023, the Cowboys have played the worst collection of teams (average ranking of 22.2) and have also played the worst collection of defenses (average ranking of 21.2).

The most notable piece of data is the ranking of the defenses the Cowboys have played over the last 7 games. The average ranking of those teams is 25.7, which represents an epically bad collection of defenses (Chargers 28, Rams 20, Eagles 21, Giants 26, Panthers 29, WFT 32, Seahawks 24). I suspect one could go back 10 years and not find an easier stretch (defensively) of 7 games than the Cowboy's last 7 games.

One interesting anomaly from Dak's first 5 games is that while they were against a slightly better-than-average Defense DVOA, the teams as a whole (Giants 32, Jets 28, Patriots 26, Cardinals 30, 49ers 1) were quite bad.

I added Dak's 2021 and 2022 numbers because I knew (as to 2022) and suspected (as to 2021), that the games in which Dak played were against weak competition. The data supported my observations. The defenses against which Dak played in 2022 had an average Defense DVOA ranking of 20.2, which would top any QB's 2023 numbers (except for Dak's 2023 numbers). And in 2021, even Dak's average Defense DVOA ranking of 19.4 was easier than the vast majority of QBs in 2023.

LOOKING FORWARD

The next 4 games is something that most Cowboy fans have been looking forward to since September as it represents the "meat" of the Cowboy's schedule, Eagles (9), Buffalo (6), Miami (4), and Detroit (9) all have strong Total Team DVOA rankings, which means that the Cowboy's final 5 games will be against teams that average 11.0 in Team DVOA rankings. However, these teams are buoyed by their offenses more than their defenses as the average Defense DVOA Rankings against the Cowboy's final 5 opponents is just 18.6.

I wrote last week that I expected the Cowboys to win against the Seahawks and the Eagles to lose to the 49ers. This week, I expect a Cowboy win against the Eagles, but it is a game that could go either way. From looking at all of the DVOA rankings and how each team has played against another, I'm still convinced that the 49ers are in a class among themselves in the NFC. Absent injuries, they are going to be a very difficult out in the playoffs. The next tier in the NFC includes the Cowboys (5), Lions (7), and Eagles (9). After that, there are the teams just hoping for a playoff berth: Vikings (14), Seahawks (16), Packers (17), Rams (19), Saints (20), Bucs (21).


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