Dallas Cowboys: Midseason Report Cards for Each Positional Unit
After a heartbreaking loss to the Detroit Lions in Week 8, the Dallas Cowboys enter midseason at 4-4, still atop the NFC East. The loss was representative of the Cowboys organization as a whole: up and down with the team appearing to finally get over the hump before going down late.
The Cowboys have had some inspiring performances from unexpected players this season, as well as some big letdowns from former stars. As such, their position report cards exhibit a wide range of grades.
Each positional unit has been graded using a combination of advanced stats—most notably from Advanced NFL Stats and Pro Football Focus (subscription required)—and film study. Pro-Football-Reference.com was also a source for stats.
Through Week 8, quarterback Tony Romo has turned in the worst efficiency of his career (excluding the 2010 season in which he got hurt) in terms of yards per attempt. That’s the bad.
The good is that Romo has 18 touchdowns to only five interceptions. He’s taking care of the football, sacrificing efficiency to do it.
Yards per attempt and interceptions are inversely correlated. In the past, Romo has typically played ultra-aggressively and you just kind of had to live with the interceptions. It’s the exact opposite in 2013, with Romo balancing conservative play with trying to attack downfield.
Romo’s high touchdown-to-interception ratio in 2013 has positively affected his passer rating, but his play hasn’t been quite as good as those numbers suggest. He’s still certainly an above-average NFL quarterback, but his career-low YPA is one reason the Cowboys are 4-4.
In terms of advanced stats, Romo ranks eighth in the NFL in expected points added (EPA)—a metric tracked by Advanced NFL Stats that measures a player’s ability to produce points. EPA is a great way to measure production because it quantifies how many points each player’s contributions are “worth.”
Sitting at eighth in EPA, Romo is in the really-good-but-not-great category of quarterbacks in 2013.
In his six games this season, running back DeMarco Murray was rather efficient. He averaged 4.7 yards per carry on the ground and caught 24 of his 27 targets. His health has always been an issue, though, and it’s starting to appear as though he’s not just unlucky, but, perhaps, truly injury-prone.
Meanwhile, rookie running back Joseph Randle has managed just 108 yards on 44 carries—2.45 YPC. If the Cowboys embraced analytics, they might have saw this coming. Slow backs who are also light don’t typically find much success in the big leagues.
Despite missing a couple games, Murray actually ranked fifth among running backs prior to Week 8 with 11.3 EPA. Randle, on the other hand, has cost the Cowboys points with a minus-7.9 EPA.
Wide receiver Dez Bryant has been as efficient as almost any wide receiver in the NFL, catching 45 of his 77 targets for 641 yards and eight touchdowns. That puts him on pace for a final line of 90/1,282/16. Through Week 7, Romo generated the seventh-highest passer rating for a quarterback to a single receiver when throwing to Bryant, according to Pro Football Focus.
Rookie wide receiver Terrance Williams has been a pleasant surprise for Dallas, having now scored in four straight games. He’s officially taken over No. 2 receiver duties for Miles Austin, who figures to be out of Dallas in 2014. Williams is on pace for a respectable rookie line of 52/888/8.
In terms of EPA, Bryant checked in at sixth in the NFL before taking on the Lions. Williams was down at No. 59, but part of that is because EPA is a cumulative stat, and the rookie didn’t have many targets early in the year.
Prior to the season, I predicted that tight end Jason Witten would continue his decline, finishing the year with 88 catches for 880 yards and four scores. Through Week 8, the tight end is on pace for 74 catches, 806 yards and six touchdowns.
Further, Witten has been subpar as a blocker. While he was once an elite receiving-blocking combination tight end, those days are over. Even with all of his targets, Witten still ranked just seventh in EPA among tight ends entering Week 8.
The Cowboys made a big deal out of their two and three tight end packages this offseason, but neither James Hanna nor rookie Gavin Escobar have played more than one-third of the team’s snaps.
Offensive linemen are notoriously difficult to grade since they don’t accumulate stats in the same manner as other players. One way that we can do it is to measure pressure rates—the percentage of pass snaps on which they allow pressure on the quarterback.
Last season, the top five linemen in Dallas in terms of snaps allowed 128 pressures and a 3.9 percent pressure rate, according to Pro Football Focus. In 2013, the top five linemen have yielded 47 pressures and a 3.3 percent pressure rate.
This year’s rate is superior to that in 2012, but we also need to consider that Romo is getting rid of the ball faster (in 2.69 seconds, on average, according to Pro Football Focus). Thus, the pass protection is probably only moderately better.
The ‘Boys are also still ranked in the bottom half of the NFL in rushing efficiency. And believe it or not, the rate of successful runs is up only slightly. In 2012, 40.2 percent of the Cowboys’ runs increased their chances of scoring on any given drive. This year, it’s 41.4 percent.
Coming into Week 8, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh was the only interior lineman to have more pressures than the Cowboys’ Jason Hatcher. With another sack against the Lions, Hatcher increased his total to seven on the year, putting him on pace for 14.
It will be interesting to see what the Cowboys do with Hatcher when the season is over. He’s played well, but at age 31, he’s the exact sort of player who has burned Dallas in the past.
With defensive tackle Nick Hayden teaming up with Hatcher inside, the defensive tackle position represents the entire Cowboys roster—half stars, half sub-par players. The ‘Boys’ roster has been top-heavy for years, explaining why they’ve been mediocre, despite some obvious talent.
Heading into Week 8, Hatcher was third in the NFL in EPA.
If someone told you this offseason that the Cowboys would be without defensive ends DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer and Tyrone Crawford at the same point this year, you’d imagine it would be nearly impossible for them to generate a pass rush.
Because of defensive end George Selvie, though, that’s not the case. I hinted that Selvie might be special in the preseason and projected him for 12 sacks early in the year. With five sacks at midseason, he’s, indeed, on pace to finish in the double digits.
Meanwhile, Ware continues his decline, on pace for just eight sacks. You might argue that it’s not fair to extrapolate Ware’s numbers since he’s been injured, but increased susceptibility to injuries is one of the symptoms of aging.
Through Week 7, Selvie beat out Ware in terms of EPA.
Linebacker Sean Lee started the season cold with just 16 total tackles in the Cowboys’ first three games. He surpassed that number in Week 4, registering double-digit tackles in every game since then. With 81 tackles, Lee is on pace for another monster season as a run defender.
Fellow linebacker Bruce Carter has been a disappointment, though, with only 42 tackles through Week 8. Carter has looked hesitant and uncannily stiff in most games.
Popular opinion would tell you that Lee is outperforming Carter in coverage this year since the former linebacker has four interceptions. There’s certainly something to be said for making big plays, and Lee has a knack for it.
Heading into midseason, however, Lee was actually allowing 8.30 YPA in coverage, according to Pro Football Focus. Carter struggled badly in coverage against the Chargers and was temporarily benched for the effort, but he’s rebounded to surrender only 6.93 YPA. If you take out the San Diego game, it’s just 6.0 YPA.
Nonetheless, Lee still ranked second among all linebackers in EPA due to his playmaking ability.
Coming into Week 8, cornerbacks Orlando Scandrick and Brandon Carr ranked in the top 20 in the NFL in yards per route allowed. After getting absolutely torched by Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson, though, Carr’s rank will plummet.
The big knock on the Cowboys’ cornerbacks hasn’t been their ability to cover receivers per se but rather their ability to get the ball back to the offense. Scandrick, Carr and Morris Claiborne have combined for just four picks. That’s one reason Carr was the only cornerback to rank in the top 35 in the league in EPA.
Further, although Carr has been pretty stout against the run with 34 tackles, Scandrick and Claiborne both struggle in run support.
It’s been one heck of a breakout season for safety Barry Church. After registering nine more tackles against the Lions, Church has 61 on the year. Even when I predicted a breakout year for Church, I projected him at only 80 tackles. On pace for over 50 percent more than that, Church is a perfect fit in Monte Kiffin’s scheme.
Most important, Church has been much-improved in coverage. Allowing just 6.91 YPA heading into Week 8, according to Pro Football Focus, Church ranked third in the league in EPA.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys have rotated safeties Will Allen, J.J. Wilcox and Jeff Heath next to Church. None rank in the top 75 in EPA, just among safeties. This should really be an “A” for Church and a “D” for everyone else.
With three more field goals in Week 8, kicker Dan Bailey has connected on 14 of 16 on the year (87.5 percent). He’s developed into one of the Cowboys’ most consistent players.
Punter Chris Jones hasn’t been as good; Dallas ranked 24th in punting average heading into Week 8.