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A New Way to Look at the Cowboys, NFL, and Fantasy Football

By Jonathan Bales

Tracking Cowboys’ Improvements Over Last Decade

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Jonathan Bales

Over at Advanced NFL Stats, a new feature has taken the world (my world) by storm.  If you click on the link, you can see the offensive and defensive “Expected Points Added” (a metric used to grade each play of a football game–a touchdown obviously has an EPA of six, while a 1st and Goal at the one-yard line is very close that number).  By tracking EPA, you can determine which teams are playing well, even if it is not reflected in their record, and which have simply been lucky.  For us here at DCT, we can take a look at the improvements of the Cowboys over the past decade.  Click on the link above to check out the graphs, or just scroll below.

In the first graph, you can see the Cowboys’ historic offensive performance as compared to their defensive efficiency.  A few notes:

  • Since Jason Garrett has taken over as the offensive coordinator, the Cowboys have had well above-average offensive efficiency in every year except for 2008.
  • Their best season over the last decade, as you might guess, was in 2007.  This season has fallen right in line with 2006 and 2009.
  • Somewhat surprisingly, the best defenses in Dallas were in the first part of the 2000s.  Since Garrett has been in town, the Cowboys have been below-average on defense, in terms of EPA, every year.

Above, you can track the Cowboys’ offensive improvements over the last 10+ years.  The most important aspect of this graph, in my view, is the fact that offensive performance is leveling out under Garrett.  Yes, the offense has been really solid during Garrett’s tenure, but we see the team was moving in that direction since 2002.  There are two ways to look at this. . .

  • The first is that Garrett is overrated as an offensive coordinator because the offense improved for multiple years since 2002 and their play has been stagnant since Garrett took over.
  • The other way to view the graph is that the Cowboys were bound to improve since their horrible 2002 campaign, and Garrett’s ability to keep the offense around the 5.0 EPA/G mark is a testament to his ability.

I think we are seeing more of the second explanation than the first.  If the Cowboys were consistently ranked No. 1 in offense each year, we wouldn’t say Garrett has shown an inability to improve as a coordinator.  When teams are playing at either a very high or very low level, we are sure to see their play regress to the mean.  This is one reason why it should be a coach’s dream to take over a 1-15 team.  Even if the coach does absolutely nothing right, the team will likely win more games the following season, and the coach will be viewed as “improving” his squad.  The fact that the offensive EPA has “leveled out” with Garrett here is a good thing.

Onto the defense. . .

This is where the Cowboys need to improve to become a Championship-caliber football team.  Still, the “decline” in defensive production since the early part of the decade is not as drastic as it seems.  The Cowboys have become a far better offensive football team over the last five years because they have been able to throw the ball well.  In the early part of the 2000s, that wasn’t the case.  The team opted to shorten games under head coach Bill Parcells, and that resulted in a superior EPA/G as compared to the current defense.

It is not the job of a coach to maximize offensive or defensive EPA, however, but rather to create the largest gap between their team and the opposition.  EPA is not an efficiency stat as we are using it here, so the “superior” EPA/G displayed by the early-2000s Cowboys does not necessarily represent a better defensive football team.

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3 Responses to Tracking Cowboys’ Improvements Over Last Decade

  1. Tyrone Jenkins says:

    Great work.

    It sounds as if this graph is largely dependent upon field position (and not necessarily scoring). Theortically, I guess it’s possible for Dallas to get to the 1 yd line of the opponent, miss scoring (being stopped short on 4th and 1); holding the other team to short yardage for them to have to punt, then driving back inside the 5 to yet again fall short of a TD (either with a FG or another stalled drive) but receive a very high EPA. I guess it goes w/o saying that teams that tend to win the field position battle are more successful.

    What is needed to accompany this is some sort of data that shows the “propensity to score” given drives inside the red zone; as we all know, Dallas isn’t that good inside the red zone (49% or 20th in the league – TDs only).

    Thus, they are 8-6.

  2. Tyrone–I’d say certain teams are better in the reed zone than others due to certain receiving threats, short-yardage backs…but over the course of a single season, I think red zone performance is LARGELY a matter of luck.

  3. Mont Seventeen says:

    I can’t stand Parcells but if he had 3 more seasons with this team… They would have had a Super Bowl by now. There have been better teams not to win a Super Bowl and this isn’t the first time Jerry has destroyed a team primed to win it all! It sucks bc it was all so promising just 5 or 6 seasons ago, now 8-8 feels like a success. Don’t get me wrong this team has come a long way from last years 1-7 start, but as we look around the NFC teams are improving with younger talent… I would say rebuild but I know Jerry could never replace Romo, Ware and Witten so I guess we go down with the ship like we did in the early 2000s.

    Oh Joy!

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