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Comparing the health of starters over the last 3 years shows the Cowboys wasted a big opportunity

Even with improved health, the Cowboys weren’t able to take the next step this past season.

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys have finished 12-5 in each of the last three seasons. Every regular season ended with the hope that they could rattle some cages in the postseason, only to find out that they would be the ones emerging dazed and confused.

It’s hard to pinpoint the root cause and we’ll spend many a night this offseason wondering where things went wrong. In years past, it was a lot easier to come up with excuses reasons. We’ve seen years where the defense hasn’t held up their end of the deal, or where they were a little short on offensive weapons, or even in the worst cases when their starting quarterback went down and all hope was lost.

However, none of those scenarios applied this past season. They had a good defense, they had great offensive weapons, and this was one of the healthier seasons we’ve seen in a while. It got us thinking about how this team fared in terms of the amount of players they’ve had available each year. Have some little bumps in the road caused them to sputter a bit?

Today, we’re going to take a look at each of the last three seasons and see where there have been some resource gaps and determine if the team has under-performed, over-performed, or performed just as they should.

2023

POSITION PLAYER GAMES PLAYED POSITION PLAYER GAMES PLAYED
POSITION PLAYER GAMES PLAYED POSITION PLAYER GAMES PLAYED
QB Dak Prescott 17 DE DeMarcus Lawrence 17
RB Tony Pollard 17 DE Micah Parsons 17
LT Tyron Smith 13 DT Osa Odighizuwa 17
LG Tyler Smith 14 DT Johnathan Hankins 14
C Tyler Biadasz 16 LB Leighton Vander Esch 5
RG Zack Martin 15 LB Damone Clark 17
RT Terence Steele 17 CB Trevon Diggs 2
WR1 CeeDee Lamb 17 CB Stephon Gilmore 17
WR2 Brandin Cooks 16 CB DaRon Bland 17
WR3 Michael Gallup 17 SS Jayron Kearse 16
TE Jake Ferguson 17 FS Malik Hooker 16
AVAILABLE OFFENSIVE STARTERS = 94% AVAILABLE DEFENSIVE STARTERS = 83%

One of the bothersome things about this past year is just how healthy this team was, particularly on offense. Dak Prescott played the entire year and despite it feeling like a hurdle earlier in the year, there were only a handful of games missed by the offensive line.

Defensively, they did get hit with injuries to Trevon Diggs and Leighton Vander Esch, but outside of those guys, the damage was minimal.

2022

POSITION PLAYER GAMES PLAYED POSITION PLAYER GAMES PLAYED
POSITION PLAYER GAMES PLAYED POSITION PLAYER GAMES PLAYED
QB Dak Prescott 12 DE DeMarcus Lawrence 17
RB Ezekiel Elliott 15 DE Micah Parsons 17
LT Tyron Smith 4 DT Osa Odighizuwa 17
LG Tyler Smith 17 DT Hankins/Bohanna 12
C Tyler Biadasz 16 LB Leighton Vander Esch 14
RG Zack Martin 17 LB Anthony Barr 14
RT Terence Steele 13 CB Trevon Diggs 17
WR1 CeeDee Lamb 17 CB Anthony Brown 12
WR2 Michael Gallup 14 CB Jourdan Lewis 6
WR3 Noah Brown 13 SS Jayron Kearse 14
TE Dalton Schultz 15 FS Malik Hooker 16
AVAILABLE OFFENSIVE STARTERS = 82% AVAILABLE DEFENSIVE STARTERS = 83%

In 2022, the offensive starters missed a total of 34 games which was more than three times what they endured this past year with just 11 missed games. There was a lot more balance between the offense and defense. The offense suffered a bit more largely due to Tyron Smith missing 13 games. There were other key injuries sprinkled in as Prescott missed five games and Terence Steele missed the final four games of the year.

Defensively, the Cowboys again were okay. The only problem was that their two most unavailable players, Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis, both just so happened to play cornerback so that put some strain on the position.

2021

POSITION PLAYER GAMES PLAYED POSITION PLAYER GAMES PLAYED
POSITION PLAYER GAMES PLAYED POSITION PLAYER GAMES PLAYED
QB Dak Prescott 16 DE DeMarcus Lawrence 7
RB Ezekiel Elliott 17 DE Micah Parsons 16
LT Tyron Smith 11 DT Osa Odighizuwa 16
LG Connor Williams 14 DT Carlos Watkins 15
C Tyler Biadasz 17 LB Leighton Vander Esch 17
RG Zack Martin 16 LB Keanu Neal 14
RT La'el Collins 12 CB Trevon Diggs 16
WR1 Amari Cooper 15 CB Anthony Brown 16
WR2 CeeDee Lamb 16 CB Jourdan Lewis 16
WR3 Michael Gallup 9 SS Jayron Kearse 16
TE Dalton Schultz 17 FS Damontae Kazee 15
AVAILABLE OFFENSIVE STARTERS = 86% AVAILABLE DEFENSIVE STARTERS = 88%

In 2021, the Cowboys were healthier than in 2022 but not as healthy as this past year. Like in 2021, they were pretty balanced with no lopsided health issues on any one side of the ball. The offensive line was slightly hit with Tyron Smith missing some time as well as La’el Collins starting the season suspended. They also had all three of their starting receivers miss time as Amari Cooper got COVID, CeeDee Lamb had a concussion, and Michael Gallup suffered a calf injury at the beginning of the season and a knee injury late.

Defensively, every single starter except for Vander Esch (shocker) missed at least a game, although most of them were just onesie, twosie and didn’t last long. The only defensive player who missed extended time was DeMarcus Lawrence who suffered a broken foot early in the year.

Now, that we’ve gone over the availability of each year, let’s compare those percentages to how well each unit has performed using points scored and defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA).

OFFENSE

YEAR AVAILABILITY PTs/GM PTs/GM RANK DVOA RANK
YEAR AVAILABILITY PTs/GM PTs/GM RANK DVOA RANK
2023 94% 29.9 1 9
2022 82% 27.5 4 14
2021 86% 31.1 1 4

It’s easier to understand why the offense in 2022 was not as productive as the other two seasons as it had the smallest percentage of starters available. And with two of those positions being hits to quarterback and left tackle, it tracks. It might be tempting to blame Kellen Moore for the dip in production that year, but his 2021 season still produces the highest points per game and DVOA of the three seasons, even having fewer starters available than last season.

DEFENSE

YEAR AVAILABILITY PTs/GM PTs/GM RANK DVOA RANK
YEAR AVAILABILITY PTs/GM PTs/GM RANK DVOA RANK
2023 83% 18.5 5 5
2022 83% 20.1 5 4
2021 88% 21.1 7 4

The defense is very consistent with almost the same amount of availability percentages each season. Dan Quinn’s group got slightly better each year in terms of points allowed per game even though the unavailable starters increased each year.

What does it all mean?

It means that the Cowboys' offense was extremely fortunate this past season in terms of health, but they probably aren’t likely to retain such good luck going forward. They played well, but we expected them to play well with so many good players. Six of their 11 starters (Dak Prescott, CeeDee Lamb, Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, Tyler Smith, and Jake Ferguson) either earned All-Pro or Pro Bowl honors (or both) with two other starters (Tony Pollard and Tyler Biadasz) making the Pro Bowl team last year. That’s a pretty stacked group.

Defensively, the team was almost as good, but with much less availability. They only sent half as many players (Micah Parsons, DaRon Bland, and DeMarcus Lawrence) to the Pro Bowl. An argument can be made that Quinn’s group has been over-performing. If that’s the case, it’s going to be hard for the next defensive coordinator to replicate (or hopefully improve) his success.

The final point is that the Cowboys had a relatively good bill of health in the 2023 season, and had enough talent on the roster that they should have been a force when the playoffs arrived. Their offensive availability was extremely strong, helping them to another 12-5 record and an NFC East title.

Now if we could just figure out why they squandered that good fortune in the playoffs.

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