Starting from the loss in the playoffs to the San Francisco 49ers, through to this point in the offseason, the Dallas Cowboys have rocked the confidence of the fanbase over that time. Dallas pushed out or lost five starters from their 2021 squad and played it low-key in outside free agency. It can feel like the team lost in the playoffs, then almost intentionally took a step back.
If you ask the Cowboys front office and coaching staff, they will probably tell you that the moves they made were going to make the team better. Maybe it’s an addition by subtraction thing, which isn’t out of the question. Many sports teams in history have gotten better after restructuring their team in a way that at first appears to be a step back. Our own David Howman gave an elegant explanation of what the Cowboys might be thinking around the moves they made on offense by letting players go, and then adding others who might enhance what they want to do on offense. We’ll just have to wait and see if they did the right thing.
But in the eyes of neutral NFL observers, the Cowboys really haven't taken a big step back. For a subjective view, take as an example the recent ESPN power ranking. The Cowboys end up eighth overall.
The Cowboys want to keep the versatility that helped Parsons win the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award. Owner Jerry Jones has referred to Parsons’ position as a “Micah player.” He can be a linebacker. He can be a pass-rusher. Had the Cowboys not selected Sam Williams in the second round, they would have kept that plan in place, but Williams presents the Cowboys — and Parsons — with more options. Williams goes into a pass-rush pool with DeMarcus Lawrence, Dorance Armstrong and Dante Fowler Jr. Parsons can continue to move between positions with ease, especially with Leighton Vander Esch’s return via free agency and Jabril Cox’s return from injury.
They are fourth in the NFC, which is probably about right since they are likely the weakest of the projected “division winners” in the conference. The L.A. Rams are the favorites in the NFC (ranked second overall) and are projected to win the NFC West. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are third overall and are the projected winners of the NFC South. Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers are sixth overall and are the favorites in the NFC North.
That was really the state of affairs before the Cowboys started shedding players and after Tom Brady decided to return. The free agency period, the loss of some starters, and the overall view of the draft haven’t really moved the Cowboys positioning. They even rank a spot higher than the foe that started this “dark clouds” period, the 49ers. They come in at ninth.
Obviously, this is just an opinion poll, so we can’t take it as gospel, but it does show the view of NFL media that aren’t biased by their Cowboys fandom (or hatred). Just neutral, informed observers. So we take it as it is - one perspective.
But from another view, one that is based on some kind of statistical formula, the Cowboys do even better. The Football Power Index is yet another system of mixing stats to come up with some form of a “power ranking.” So just how does that work?
It is our predictive model that includes ratings and projections for every NFL team, from how good they are on defense to what their chances are of winning their division. During this offseason, ESPN Analytics executed an overhaul of the model, and a full description of changes and improvements can be found at the bottom. One key change to point out: The preseason version of FPI has been untethered from betting markets, which previously were heavy drivers of the offseason model.
There is a more detailed version of how the model works in the article, but for purposes here we will say it is based on a lot of analytical data pushed into a predictive, forward-looking model. In this methodology, the Cowboys rank sixth. Even they recognize that seems high, but they defend their process.
Cowboys way up at No. 6
After last year’s 12-5 season ended unceremoniously in a wild-card loss to the 49ers — who could forget the spike that wasn’t? — our model forecasts a strong follow-up for the Cowboys. In fact, they are the highest-rated team that FPI believes has a better chance to win the Super Bowl (6%) than their odds at Caesars Sportsbook (18-1) indicate.
Why all the love? It sees strength on both sides of the ball, ranking Dallas fourth in offensive FPI rating and sixth in defensive FPI rating.
Offensively, our predictive expected points added (EPA) model remains fairly high on Dak Prescott despite a down season in 2021. The Cowboys’ quarterback has demonstrated a high level of performance in the past — he finished fourth in QBR in both 2017 and 2019 — and remains in the prime of his career. Dallas also has two solid wide receivers in CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup, though we’re working under the assumption of a healthy Gallup.
The result? Dallas has a 45% chance to win the NFC East, along with a 16% shot to be the No. 1 seed in the NFC (second only to the Packers).
This ranking brings to light one reason the Cowboys fanbase may be over-inflating their disappointment in this offseason. And that was the surprise of losing in the playoffs, in the first round, at home. The Cowboys offense last year was a monster in almost every way until it hit the inconsistent phase in the second half of the season. Even then, they were still able to score at times, they just didn’t do it as consistently and efficiently. The defense stayed stout pretty much all year.
The arc of last season, the blistering start followed by the lukewarm second half, capped by the extremely disappointing playoff loss, has the Cowboys fanbase in a decidedly unpleasant mood. Then the Amari Cooper/ Randy Gregory/La’el Collins situation was followed by very little outside activity in free agency, and that has brought more negativity. And it is justifiable, it’s hard to watch that much talent walk out the door for practically nothing.
But the outside world doesn’t seem to share the feeling. At least that is something.