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Why it’s perfectly reasonable to expect the Cowboys to regress in 2023

Dallas has won 12 games in back-to-back seasons. Regression to the mean could be lurking around the corner.

Dallas Cowboys v Tennessee Titans
Will it be a much rougher year?
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Before you get too upset, this is not a prediction or preference. This is a bit of analysis about the Dallas Cowboys and the hurdles they face in trying to return to the NFL playoffs for the third year in a row. None of these are insurmountable, but for various reasons, might be too likely. If you want a more optimistic outlook, our Dan Rogers has a nice helping already up here. This is just a hopefully reasonable look at the flip side of things.

Let’s start with statistics. After back-to-back double digit win seasons, the dreaded regression to the mean is likely lying in the weeds waiting to pounce. For those that don’t know about the concept, one of the elements of regression involves period-to-period performance, with an NFL season being the period for teams. If you are either significantly better or worse than average one year, historically you tend to move back towards the average performance, or mean. For 2022, Dallas finished with a better record than all but six other teams in the league. That puts them in the top quartile of the NFL. There is an excellent chance that they will be closer to .500 (or, thanks to the addition of a 17th game, 8-9/9-8) just on probability alone. And the league wants that. Parity is one of the major desires of league management and ownership. Things like the salary cap and putting teams with worse records at the top of draft and waiver claim orders are meant to advance that objective. One illustration is that the Cowboys are 27th in the draft order this year (they will make the 26th pick of the first round because of a forfeited pick ahead of them.) The team relies heavily on the draft to acquire talent, but the further back in the order they sit, the more difficult that task. They do have a good track record with first-round picks, even later in the order, such as last year’s first-rounder Tyler Smith. But they have had some not too long ago that didn’t work out so well, like Taco Charlton. It is just going to be harder to replace talent this season.

We discussed this overall idea on the latest episode of Ryled Up on the Blogging The Boys podcast network. Make sure to subscribe to our network so you don’t miss any of our shows! Apple devices can subscribe here and Spotify users can subscribe here.

And they have a lot to replace. Their list of free agents this year is long and full of players who played a key role on the field in 2022. The top names for them, in no particular order, are Dalton Schultz, Anthony Brown, Leighton Vander Esch, Connor McGovern, Tony Pollard, Terence Steele, and Donovan Wilson. All except Pollard were starters, and he was their most effective running back. This is one of the biggest groups of potential free agent losses of any team. By contrast, Dallas’ main rival in the NFC East next year is expected to be this year’s NFC representative in the Super Bowl, the Philadelphia Eagles. Their list of free agents is much shorter, and while they have several starters to deal with as well, several of them are coming off second contracts and near or past senior citizenship in the NFL, 30 years old. That includes Fletcher Cox, Javon Hargrave, and James Bradberry. Howie Roseman may be ready to move on and get younger at those positions. Additionally, the Eagles have an extra first-round pick acquired from the Miami Dolphins, the 10th overall. They are likely to be just as formidable as they were last year.

Compounding this is that the Cowboys are notoriously reluctant to spend much in free agency. They do often use some larger pieces of the pie to bring back their own, but as shown above, they have too many players entering free agency to not have some major holes in the roster when the NFL Draft rolls around. As much as we gripe about their approach to free agency, they do have to work with the limitations of the cap, and they are going to have to find a lot of space by restructuring contracts and releasing players, as they are currently about $7 million in the hole.

All this points to a weaker roster to start this season than last. And the quality of your roster is usually the biggest determinant of success in the NFL.

They did have a major positive development when Dan Quinn came back for another year as the defensive coordinator, and he has some key members of his staff back as well in Joe Whitt, Aden Durde, and Al Harris. But they parted ways with Kellen Moore. Now Mike McCarthy will be calling plays for the offense, and despite the hiring of Brian Schottenheimer as the new offensive coordinator, this will be McCarthy’s offense. That will involve some inevitable changes for the players, especially since the change at offensive coordinator was believed to be driven in large part by differences between McCarthy and Moore. This is going to have some impact on Dak Prescott and the rest of the offense.

One major challenge that relates to player acquisition as well is that the offense needs to be less dependent on Prescott playing perfect football. Part of that last year was the failure to properly address the wide receiver position, forcing more of the load of moving the ball on Prescott. This is still a huge issue with the players they currently have under contract. If they drop the ball on this one, we will likely see similar issues this year.

Another, perhaps more subtle, problem is that the team is showing some indications that they still are wedded to the idea of building the offense around the running game. While it is possibly more speculation than anything else, there is an article by NFL writer Tony Pauline that suggests the team is working to bring back both Pollard and Ezekiel Elliott. Last year, particularly at the end of the season, the ground game fell off. A good bit of that may well be attributable to the obvious decline in Elliott’s performance. While McCarthy may lean more to the passing game, that remains to be seen. If he doesn’t we may well be treated to a parade of failed first-down runs once again.

Finally, the rest of the NFC East all made major strides last season while Dallas basically tread water with an identical record as the year before. They went 4-2 against their rivals in 2022, with the only losses the Cooper Rush game against the Eagles and the season finale where they had nothing to play for with their playoff seeding locked up, but things may be noticeably harder this year.

All these are factors that could make another playoff appearance hard, and getting 12 wins again may be harder. After an offseason where one of the goals was to find a way to beat their once and present nemesis, the San Francisco 49ers, if they met again in the playoffs, the results were almost exactly the same. They failed to get better in 2022. With all the challenges, they could well get worse this year.

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