I’m all about making predictions because I think they convey true understanding. All writers should make predictions—lots of them—but here’s the key: They should be forced to revisit them at the end of the year. Good or bad, that’s what I plan to do with these 2013 Cowboys predictions, just as I did with my 2012 predictions.
When I’m making any prediction, I’m looking for cases where past results aren’t necessarily a reflection of reality. Jason Witten is a great example of that. Although he had 110 receptions in 2012, he saw a career high in targets because the Cowboys were losing so much. If Witten has a lighter workload, his bulk stats will decline in a big way.
So I’m really just searching for predictors of future play that aren’t necessarily represented in past results. Let’s get to the predictions...
This might seem far-fetched given that the Cowboys ranked 21st in the NFL in sacks in 2012, but the 10th-ranked team finished with only five more sacks. The distribution of sacks tends to remain pretty steady for year to year, so we just need to find a way for the Cowboys to secure five more.
I’ve found that a team’s sacks tend to add up to right around one-fourth of its total pressures. Based on their 2012 pressure rate, the ‘Boys should have had 1.5 more sacks than they did. So based on a reversal of luck alone, the Cowboys should jump by 1.5 sacks.
That means the Cowboys will need a total of 14 more pressures in 2013 to close in on 39 sacks to (likely) rank in the top 10. That shouldn’t be a problem for two reasons.
First, DeMarcus Ware is healthier. Second, the defensive tackles should be better in Monte Kiffin’s one-gap system. I find it hard to believe that Dallas can’t generate an extra 3.5 pressures per lineman over the course of the season.
Dallas hauled in only seven picks in 2012—the worst mark in the NFL. We know the Cowboys’ interceptions are almost certain to increase just because of randomness, but the number could really jump.
For starters, Dallas should get thrown on more often. It saw only 511 pass attempts—fifth lowest in the league. Even an increase to 600 attempts would have resulted in nearly a 20 percent increase in interceptions on average.
And I’ve already discussed why the Cowboys should be able to get more pressure and sacks. Well, the best predictor of team interceptions is pressure on the quarterback. As Ware and Co. get going, so will the back seven.
I’m pretty bullish on the Cowboys’ takeaway improvement because I love their cornerbacks, particularly second-year man Morris Claiborne. With just one interception in his rookie campaign, some figured Claiborne had a down year.
But that's not so. While he wasn’t elite by any means, Claiborne was still pretty good. He generally had quality coverage, and opposing quarterbacks targeted him only 69 times all year. He allowed 8.3 YPA but only 1.14 yards per route due to those lack of targets.
One thing we forget about Claiborne is that he was the consensus top defensive player in the 2012 NFL Draft. With Kiffin’s scheme allowing him to play more zone coverage and make plays on the football, we should be more excited about his 2013 prospects.
No one doubts that Murray can play well when on the field—you don’t find many 220-pounders with 4.41 speed who’ve averaged 4.8 YPC over their careers. But the issue is whether or not he can remain healthy. Ask just about any fantasy owner in the world and they’ll tell you that Murray drops in drafts because "he’s injury prone."
Well, that might be true. But it might not be. We just don’t know for sure right now. Murray has missed nine games in two NFL seasons, which is hardly a massive sample. There’s a chance he’s truly more prone to injuries than the average player, but it’s hardly conclusive, and I’m betting on a full season (or close to it) out of Murray.
If that happens, we’re looking at a back who has 1,500-yard potential. Remember, he’s the workhorse in Dallas now with Lance Dunbar being his primary backup. If he’s healthy all year, Murray is going to see at least 250 carries.
And he’s also a highly underrated pass-catcher. He’s hauled in just under three catches per game during his career. With a full season of work, Murray could easily add an extra 350 or 400 yards as a receiver.
I tracked Jason Garrett as calling eight running back screens in all of 2012. It’s really a wonder he didn’t utilize them since 1) they can be a substitute for a failing running game and 2) screens can hold back pass-rushers.
New play-caller Bill Callahan showed a willingness to dial up more screens for Dallas during the preseason, so there’s no reason to think we won’t see two running back screens per game from Dallas this year—four times its 2012 rate. That’s more good news for Murray too.
I talked about Witten in the intro, and I think the numbers suggest his final receiving total will be somewhere in the 800s. First, there’s this:
- 2008: 1.95
- 2009: 1.90
- 2010: 1.82
- 2011: 1.64
- 2012: 1.59
That’s Witten’s yards per route over the past five seasons, and it’s declined every year. There’s almost no way that Witten again runs 629 routes like he did last season. That number was 61 more than any other tight end, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
I tracked the average pass to Witten as traveling just 8.3 yards. He’s just not equipped to do much with the ball after the catch, meaning as his routes and targets decrease, his yards will inevitably do the same.
Bryant is undoubtedly one of the game’s premiere scorers, taking 13.5 percent of his career catches into the end zone. If we include just the red-zone targets, Bryant has scored on an amazing 37.1 percent of his looks.
But Tony Romo has targeted Bryant just 27 times in the red zone over the past two years and 35 times since Bryant came into the league. That will change in 2013 with Bryant becoming the focal point of the offense. Plus, let’s not forget that Bryant, who ranked second in touchdowns last year, still hasn’t ranked in the top 10 in overall targets.
If you think Romo isn’t capable of winning a Super Bowl, there’s probably nothing I can say to convince you. But how about this one? Joe Flacco just won a Super Bowl. Let’s do a quick comparison of Romo to Flacco over their careers.
|Tony Romo||Joe Flacco|
It takes a pretty big leap of faith to claim that a quarterback with 7.94 YPA and a 95.6 rating during his career isn’t even capable of winning a championship.
If you point to Romo’s failures in big games, it would take another big leap of faith to argue that the player with a higher career-passer rating during the fourth quarter than any quarterback since 2000 and the one whose late-season passer rating bests his rating in the early months is also somehow a choke artist.
But yet here we stand, discussing the same topic again and again. This is the year that Romo proves me right.
And if not, I’ll be right back here to review where I went wrong at season’s end.