You often have to step out of the chaos to gain a bit of perspective on exactly what the hell is going on around you. If you’ve ever stepped out of a frantic school or work all-nighter and cleared your head with a five minute walk you’ll know what I’m talking about – even a brief respite can bring the overall situation and the relative size of your problems into a much sharper focus and quite often, panic can be averted.
The Cowboys got to take a step outside the whirling maelstrom that is the Post-Lockout, No-Preparation, Seat-Of-Your-Pants 2011 NFL Season as they enjoyed a Week 5 Bye. And while that time off might not have helped the ‘Boys or their fans make any more sense of the chaos that is The League, it certainly helped to put their own chaos into perspective. A season and a quarterback that felt like lost causes when Romo’s third INT settled into Stephen Tulloch’s arms against Detroit may be worthy of re-examination in a different light as the rest of the league continues to prove that there’s one elite (but far from invincible) team and a whole bunch of mess.
As a way of making sense of what’s happening and getting a better idea of who’s hot and who’s not, I’ve decided to take the route of good old fashioned adjusted stats. I think raw numbers tell a fairly limited tale, particularly through the first half of the season where teams might have faced very disparate schedules. I’ve been tracking each team’s key stats (offensive and defensive yards per rushing and passing attempt, turnovers and sacks) through each game and comparing them against what their opponents are gaining/giving up in those categories. It’s the same concept behind FootballOutsiders’ DVOA (Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average) stats and while I’m sure I’m doing it in a much less sophisiticated way than they are, some of the conclusions I’ve drawn from my numbers thusfar are tracking fairly well with what their numbers suggest as well as what I’ve seen in the league through the first five weeks. (As an aside, the concept of adjusted stats is even more useful in college football since there’s far greater disparity in the quality of different teams’ opponents – that’s why if anyone has a CFB gambling jones or just a desire to understand what’s happening in the college landscape then Huck’s Adjusted Stats stuff is solid gold). I’m going to give a brief overview of a few of the key stats I’m tracking, then look at the Cowboys’ performance there relative to the rest of the league to understand how they’ve really been performing thusfar on both sides of the ball.
As an example of my approach, let’s take a look at the Cowboys’ passing stats. Through four games, they are averaging 8.4 yards per pass attempt when Romo is throwing (I’ve factored out Kitna’s passes against the 49ers since they aren’t representative of the Cowboys with Romo, so as long as Romo is slated to start I’m using projections with his stats only. I’m taking the same approach with the Jaguars and Gabbert, the Seahawks with Jackson, etc.) However, based on the overall stats for the defenses they’ve faced, I’ve calculated that based on the Cowboys’ 151 Romo-thrown pass attempts that they’ve gained 248 more yards than their opponents would have given up on average. That means they’re averaging 1.63 yards more per pass attempt than the average team, a figure I call their YPA +/-. I add that to their base YPA to get a total of 10.0, and I call that figure their YPA60. I take the same approach for each team’s rushing stats, as well as the rushing and passing surrendered by their defense (although for defense, lower/negative #s are better). I’m viewing each of the Cowboys’ units mainly through this prism, and you’ll be seeing more of these stats in my NFL picks piece later today.
OK, sorry for that digression – let’s get down to Cowboys business.
WHEN THE COWBOYS THROW
YPA60: 10.0 (4th)
I’d be burying the lede (to the extent that I haven’t done so already) if I didn’t jump right in with Tony Romo and the passing game. The first quarter of Romo’s 2011 season has been a near-perfect fractal of his entire career – or at least the perception of it – as he’s illustrated in flawless, four-game miniature his penchant for both fantastic downfield strikes and absurd acts of self-sabotage that wouldn’t be out of place in a Wile E. Coyote short. His brief lionization as a gutty, gritty leader playing through pain was swiftly forgotten as he was Lion-ized for three interceptions in the course of setting fire to a seemingly insurmountable lead. It would be an effort of 3000 words or more to fully discuss the Mind, Meaning and Win-The-Big-One Potential of Romo, so for now I’m going to concentrate on what the numbers tell us about the quality of the Cowboys’ passing game.
Basically, they tell us that it’s pretty damn slick.
Considering the fact that the Cowboys have played about 8% of their total offensive snaps with a fully healthy QB and WR corps, the damage they’ve done through the air has been tremendous. Both Dez Bryant and Miles Austin have used their brief moments of health to terrorize pass defenses – if they are both healthy then the rest of the season might look like the hospital attack scene from The Ghost and The Darkness. Emerging third WR Laurent Robinson looked fantastic against the Lions until getting dinged, and as long as he’s able to keep his fragile form functional he should at least present a credible outside threat while allowing Austin to eviscerate defenses from the slot. In the midst of the Cowboys’ QB/WR chaos, Jason Witten has hummed along as one of the league’s elite receiving TEs while averaging 9.2 yards every time a ball is thrown his way. Despite his physical prowess, 2nd TE Martellus Bennett will receive neither "iPhone money" nor "Jerry Jone’ money" as a free agent as his mindless lack of attention to detail in the pass game continues to render him a one-dimensional blocking TE. The Cowboys’ RB/screen game hasn’t emerged as quickly as I’d thought it would, but don’t sleep on it with quality pass-catchers like Felix Jones and Demarco Murray coupled with a newly-mobile OL. The Cowboys’ pass protection has been spotty with youngsters Bill Nagy and Phil Costa getting victimized up the gut, but the good news is that rookie RT Tyron Smith has exceeded even the staff’s lofty expectations by shutting down his edge and only giving up pressure on 4% of passing plays.
That’s a lengthy way of saying what you probably already knew – the Boys can kill you through the air but can also slit their own throat with an untimely TIMMAH! The prescription would seem to be this – embrace the whirlwind and ride the tiger as Romo builds a lead for you striking downfield, and then eeeeaaaassse the game out of his hands and turn it over to the run game to bring it home. That would be an excellent plan if…
WHEN THE COWBOYS RUN
YPC60: 2.6 (28th)
…the Cowboys could run the ball worth a shit, which they basically can’t. The blame for that is multifaceted, but quite a bit falls on the shoulders of two blocking stalwarts from last season – Doug Free and Jason Witten. Free has been repeatedly abused in all aspects of play through the first four games, but his run blocking has been especially poor after the dominant show he turned in last season. Hopefully he has used the bye to get his head right with ball, heal up anything that might have been nagging him and get ready to start justifying that massive off-season deal. Witten’s slide here is equally mystifying – Profootballfocus.com has him with a -2.80 run block rating through four games which contrasts dramatically with the +11.80 he picked up over the course of the 2010 campaign. As his athleticism seems undiminished, there’s been no word of injury and his attitude/character are basically unimpeachable I’m going to hold out hope for a return to form here. The worst blocking performer overall has been rookie 7th-rounder Bill Nagy at LG – I certainly had lower expectations for him than the other two gentlemen due to the whole ‘rookie 7th-rounder’ thing but he can’t keep receiving pwnage at the rate he has been. Kosier at RG is what he is – a reasonably mobile puller/second level guy who struggles at the POA, while C Phil Costa has actually done all right in the run game thusfar. The bright spot once again is Tyron Smith at RT – he’s the only RT in THE LEAGUE with a Profootballfocus rating of over +2.0 in both the run and pass game. Smith is looking like The Next Big Thing, and the Cowboys/Jerry deserve plaudits for not outsmarting themselves and trading down while this gem was on the board.
Felix has been Felix – fast, reasonably shifty, fairly fragile. He does deserve some plaudits for some fairly hard-nosed inside running and playing through pain with an injured shoulder. To borrow a phrase from Scip, Felix can execute within his sphere of competence but isn’t going to pull a Barry Sanders/Adrian Peterson show and dazzle in the face of consistently shoddy blocking. Not a ton of data on rookie DeMarco Murray just yet, while Tashard Choice continues to redefine the concept of JAG and would have been cut on the spot for running out of bounds against the ‘Skins if Jimmah still prowled the sidelines.
I’m cautiously optimistic for at least moderate improvement here if Free and Witten can regress towards career run-blocking means and the youngsters in the interior OL can learn from their early ass-kickings rather than pull a Rob Petiti-esque drowning act. The most we can probably hope for, however, is a run game that can spring some solid gainers on draws and do a half-decent job of setting up play action – closing out games will still be on the shoulders of Romo and the defense.
WHEN THE COWBOYS’ OPPONENTS THROW
YPAA60: 6.4 (10th)
The Cowboys’ wounded secondary hasn’t faced a murderer’s row of passing attacks just yet, but they’ve acquitted themselves quite well in contrast to last season’s ghastly play. Despite missing Terence Newman for half their season and Orlando Scandrick for all of it, the Cowboys have held their opponents to a collective YPA +/- of -0.4. A lot of the credit goes to Rob Ryan’s pressure getting to opposing QBs as well as the stabilizing effect of having two NFL safeties on the field. While neither Abram Elam nor Gerald Sensabaugh have been anything too special so far with both giving up a good amount of plays in front of them, they haven’t allowed receivers to frolic downfield for 50-yard strikes as was common practice during the Alan Ball Administration. CB Mike Jenkins seems to be rebounding nicely from his own personal horrow show in 2010 while Newman hasn’t looked too overmatched on his return to the field.
Another big benefit to the Cowboys’ defense has been the near-constant presence of Sean Lee on the field instead of last year’s decidedly un-dynamic duo of Bradie James and Keith Brooking. Lee isn’t great at locking up a back or TE in man-type coverage, but he’s got tremendous awareness and ability to jump passing routes. If rookie LB Bruce Carter is able to emerge from the PUP list with an ability to contribute even modestly as a nickel LB and blitzer then the Cowboys’ between-the-hashmarks defense figures to be massively improved from last year.
The outside LBs are certainly doing their part – DeMarcus Ware is currently tied for fourth in the league in splash plays (sacks + QB hits + QB pressures) despite playing in just four games and booked Anthony Spencer has been active and aggressive as well. The return of DE Jason Hatcher from a calf injury will be a welcome benefit to the pass rush as he has been the lineman who has benefitted the most from the one on one matchups that Rob Ryan’s schemes provide. Sean Lissemore has also gotten after the QB with some regularity, and while I’d like to see more heat provided by NT Jay Ratliff he’s at least showed quite well against the run in marked contrast to last season. Speaking of which…
WHEN THE COWBOYS’ OPPONENTS RUN
YPCA60: 2.6 (3rd)
...the Cowboys’ run defense as a whole has been tremendous, and a huge surprise to those of us who saw them repeatedly gashed in the preseason. ALL SIX of the Cowboys’ regular-rotation down linemen have positive run-game grades from PFF, with Sean Lissemore leading the way in bagging a 5.0 score in a mere 50 snaps – he leads ALL defensive linemen in run score per snap played. The ‘Boys in the trenches have been ably backed up by second-year sensation Sean Lee, who continues to conjure images of Zach Thomas as he knifes into gaps like a pre-cog and chops down RBs for one-yard gains. Neither of the Cowboys’ old man rotation at the other inside ‘backer spot has shown too well against the run, but the strong play of the other front 6 and some timely fills from Elam, Sensabaugh and Church at S have kept things well in hand.
There’s some age in the front seven, but the strong play of just about everyone in the DL rotation gives good reason to hope that the team won’t wear down too badly as the season grinds on. They may have to make some compromises in favor of pass defense as more stout air attacks come onto the schedule – like this Sunday at 3:15, for example – but as long as Rob Ryan stays on his game the run defense figures to stay a strength throughout the season.
They’re getting better. Big ups to Dan Bailey.
It’s been a maddening ride through the first four weeks, but unless you’re talking to a confident Cheesehead or a newly ebullient Crackhead Lions fan you’re likely to find an equal amount of hand-wringing over their favorite team’s fortunes. Since this has been a pretty stats-informed piece, let’s close with one more. The fine folks at ColdHardFootballFacts.com came up with a dandy measure last year that has proven to have a ton of predictive power in identifying Super Bowl winners – Passer Rating Differential. Basically, you take the net of a team’s offensive passer rating and the passer rating allowed by its defense to gauge its overall effectiveness when the ball is in the air – what a team gains and gives up on the ground are of vastly less importance. I love this stat, and using my own adjusted stats I created what I call a team’s PD60 – their Passing Differential that subtracts their YPAA60 (defensive) from their YPA60 (offensive) while adding in a factor for passing TDs and INTs on both sides of the ball. Here’s a hideously formatted list of how things look through the first five games of the season:
Tennessee ain’t staying up there with Britt out, and the Texans will be hard-pressed to keep their ratio that strong with their best pass rusher gone even if Andre Johnson gets back healthy soon. It's early days yet, but a couple of possible conclusions here:
1) If you can get Pittsburgh at +450 odds or better to win the AFC or +1100 odds or better to win the Super Bowl, it may be a pretty solid investment.
2) Things may not be all that bad in Dallas.
NFL Picks piece coming later this afternoon, but you might be able to guess that I’m gonna advocate taking the Cowboys +7.5 against the Pats.