Dallas Cowboys: Five Factors For 2011

By Adam Dobrowolski
September 11, 2011 3:01 pm
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Perhaps the 2010 Dallas Cowboys got too many kicks after six, as “America’s Team” fell out of the playoff race before the stimulating spiced ales came into season. Thanks to several baffling late-game losses and a putrid pass defense, the Cowboys began the 2010 season with a 1-7 record.
 
Goodbye, wearisome Wade Phillips. Hello, judicious Jason Garrett.
 
While the change at head record helped that team to finish a with less-revolting 6-10 record, Dallas continued to struggle to stop the pass and lost a few more baffling games late.
 
Despite the terrible defense and all the late-game chokes of Ol’ Yeller proportion, the general perception from the Mainstream Media paints the picture of a Cowboys team that will bounce back into the postseason in 2011.
 
Is the MSM onto something, or are the pundits simply overhyping the guys from Big D? Five factors will determine which case becomes reality:
 
1. Team record in one-possession games
Of the 10 losses for Dallas, eight games were determined by seven points or fewer. In fact, the two exceptions came during the final two games for Phillips, an embarrassment in 35-17 home loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Sunday Night Football 45-7 disaster in Green Bay.
 
Besides that, Dallas lost close games in epic fashion, including the following:
  • Week 1: Holding by Alex Barron that negated a game-ending touchdown in 13-7 loss
  • Week 3: Outgained Tennessee 511-321 yards in 34-27 loss
  • Week 4: Outgained Minnesota 314-188 yards in 24-21 loss
  • Week 7: Tony Romo suffered season-ending injury as team blows 20-7 lead
  • Week 12: Roy Williams fumbled after what would’ve been the game-sealing catch
  • Week 16: Allowed two return touchdowns; David Buehler missed extra point in 27-26 loss
 The Cowboys finished 2010 with a 3-8 record in one-possession games. As explained during the Mathletics series, there can’t be much confidence for that mark to repeat in 2011. Put in the context of the other four factors, and there’s legitimate reason to believe the Cowboys won’t lose eight one-possession games in 2011.
 
2. Improvement in Defensive Passer Rating
In 2010, “Big D” stood for “big defensive sieve” in the passing game. With a 92.8 Defensive Passer Rating, Dallas finished last in the NFC. This includes an NFL-high 33 passing touchdowns allowed. According to Pro Football Reference, only the 1961-63 Redskins allowed at least 33 passing touchdowns in consecutive seasons. In fact, no team since the NFL-AFL merger allowed at least 30 passing touchdowns in consecutive seasons.
 
Expect some regression for the pass defense. Because the team with allow fewer passing touchdowns, the Defensive Passer Rating will improve as well.
 
3. Improvement in Bendability
Large in part due to the poor Defensive Passer Rating, the Cowboys finished dead last in Bendability (12.91 YPPA) in 2010. Since Cold Hard Football Facts began its data for Bendability in 2005, only 13 teams allowed fewer than 13 yards per point allowed.
 
The results from the first 12 teams are very promising for the Cowboys in 2011:
Team Bendability Next Year
2009 Giants 12.13 YPPA +2.30 YPPA, -80 points
2009 Lions 12.70 YPPA +2.20 YPPA, -125 points
2008 Cardinals 12.45 YPPA +4.62 YPPA, -101 points
2008 Cowboys 12.87 YPPA +7.39 YPPA, -115 points
2008 Lions 12.50 YPPA +0.20 YPPA, -23 points
2008 Rams 12.79 YPPA +0.89 YPPA, -29 points
2007 Dolphins 12.53 YPPA +4.08 YPPA, -120 points
2007 Rams 12.46 YPPA +0.33 YPPA, +27 points
2007 Ravens 12.57 YPPA +4.55 YPPA, -140 points
2005 Cardinals 12.22 YPPA +2.15 YPPA, +2 points
2005 Saints 12.55 YPPA +2.72 YPPA, -76 points
2005 Titans 12.14 YPPA +2.65 YPPA, -21 points
 
If the Cowboys improve their Bendability as expected, it will likely mean they allow fewer points. That most definitely should help them to avoid losing another eight one-possession games.
 
4. The return game
Last year, the Cowboys scored seven return touchdowns. This includes a fluke punt return touchdown by Bryan McCann on a battle ball by the Detroit Lions to avoid a touchback. Only the New England Patriots (nine) and Arizona Cardinals (12) finished with more. Furthermore, only six teams in the previous three seasons beat out that total.
 
In 2009, the New Orleans Saints scored nine return touchdowns. In 2008, the Green Bay Packers scored nine return touchdowns. In 2007, the Minnesota Vikings scored nine return touchdowns, while three teams (Arizona Cardinals, Chicago Bears, New England Patriots) score eight return touchdowns. Those six teams combined for 24 return touchdowns in their respective following seasons. By that average, Dallas would score three fewer return touchdowns.
 
5. The field goal battle
With the league changing the kickoff to the 35-yard line, the Cowboys may have no need for kicker David Buehler anymore. Rookie Dan Bailey will start the season as the kicker, while Buehler hangs around as the kickoff specialist. Now, there may not be a need for kickoff specialist anymore.
 
Last year, Buehler made 24 of 32 field goal attempts, including 12-of-17 outside 40 yards. There’s no context to suggest the Cowboys will attempt more than half of their field goals outside 40 yards. Perhaps the roster change helps out the Cowboys.
 
Meanwhile, their opponents made 25-of-27 attempts. That total can easily decline, because field goal percentages come with the context of kicking distance. Remember that the defense is expected to allow fewer passing touchdowns, which could mean more field goal attempts. Of course, that could mean more missed field goal attempts.

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