Every team has a range of potential outcomes heading into a season, but the Dallas Cowboys arguably have one of the widest ranges in the NFL in 2014. That’s due primarily to a lot of question marks across the roster.
Will defensive end Anthony Spencer start the season on PUP? Will quarterback Tony Romo’s back hold up? Can wide receiver Terrance Williams take the next step to take pressure off of Dez Bryant?
To win in the NFL, though, you need an elite quarterback. We can talk all day about Romo’s “clutch” factor, but the fact is that he’s an elite quarterback (or very close to it) who gives the Cowboys a chance to win in every game. When he’s at his best, Dallas is one of the top teams in the league. When he’s mediocre, the team's below average.
Considering the Cowboys’ 2014 fortunes in terms of a ceiling and a floor is smart because it introduces probabilistic thinking into the equation. If the Cowboys do X, what are the chances they’ll reach the playoffs? If they fail to perform Y, how will that affect the probability of them winning the division?
With that said, let’s take a look at the Cowboys’ floor and ceiling projections in 2014. There are a lot of different ways to project a team’s ceiling and floor in a given season, most of them highly subjective. I’m going to try to make the process as objective as possible, analyzing two stats that are highly predictive of team wins: net yards per passing attempt and turnover differential.
Net YPA is one of the best stats in all of football. It’s simply a measure of a quarterback’s efficiency with sacks included in the total. Sacks obviously stall drives, so it will be important for Romo and Co. to limit them as much as possible.
If we look back at Romo’s past Net YPA, we see that there’s a correlation with his record as a quarterback.
When Romo has been at his most efficient, the Cowboys have won a whole lot of games. When he’s been average, they’ve struggled. In Romo’s top three seasons in terms of Net YPA, the Cowboys have gone 30-12, good for a .714 win percentage. In his three worst seasons, they’ve been 24-20. That’s not horrible but still a far cry from the success the ‘Boys have had when Romo’s Net YPA is elite.
We can use Romo’s Net YPA as a proxy for overall record. If he matches his career worst mark, we’d expect the Cowboys to have a winning percentage of around .450—close to a 7-9 record. That’s not their floor, as we still need to analyze defensive play, but it’s an initial foundation with which to work.
Now, we can look at turnover differential. Here’s how the Cowboys have fared since 2003.
In their three best seasons since 2003, in terms of turnover differential, the Cowboys have gone 29-19. In their three worst years, they finished 23-25. That floor comes close to matching the low of a .475 expected winning percentage in the graph.
Combining the numbers, it’s clear that the Cowboys’ floor is below .450, though. If we’d expect a .450 winning percentage in Romo’s worst year without considering defensive play, we’d need to expect worse than .450 when you factor in a possibly poor defense.
And the Cowboys defense has the potential to be really, really poor this year. Without much confidence in their pass rush—the most important component in generating takeaways—the Cowboys have a really low floor. If we assume they could play poorly enough to be a 4-12 team and that Romo plays slightly below-average football—which is probably his floor—we’re looking at a bottom projection of 3-13 for Dallas.
Using the same methodology, we can project the Cowboys’ ceiling this year. Looking at the charts, we see that the offense could potentially play well enough for us to expect a .600 record and the same for the defense.
Again, that means the team’s ceiling is higher than a .600 winning percentage; if the offense plays well enough to expect that number and the defense is surprisingly above average, the expected winning percentage would jump above .600.
But what’s the true ceiling of this defense? It’s tough to expect much more than average play from them. We know that Romo and Co.’s offensive ceiling is pretty high; we’ll call it a 12-4 record. With an average defense, that would make the Cowboys’ ceiling as a team also 12-4.
A Wide Range of Possibilities
It might seem strange to say the Cowboys could finish between 3-13 and 12-4, but there really are a lot of potential outcomes for every team heading into a season. The most likely record for Dallas might be 8-8, but with such a short season, it’s not impossible for a “true” 8-8 team to finish 3-13 or 12-4 by chance alone.
That’s actually good news for Dallas. We know the Cowboys aren’t one of the league’s elite teams, so they actually want to embrace variance as much as possible. In short, they need to put themselves in a position to benefit from good luck. We can count on Romo and the offense for quality production, but the ‘Boys need some luck for this defense to play well enough to allow them to make a run.