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Five Reasons the Dallas Cowboys Will Win the NFC East in 2011

Jonathan Bales

The title is self-explanatory, so let’s dive right in. . .

5.  Jason Garrett is improving as a play-caller.

There is no doubt that Garrett’s play-calling can become extremely predictable at times.  I’ve already shown how Garrett’s 2010 playaction pass calls and lack of counters hurt the team in 2010, and I’ve discussed the “Double Tight Strong” play-calling ad nauseam.

But Garrett also improved in a number of areas last season.  The Cowboys ran less draw plays, used fewer motions, ran weak side more frequently, became less predictable on second down, and were more efficient on initial drives–all areas of concern heading into the season, and all areas in which Garrett excelled.

As I wrote in my USA Today article on why Garrett is the right man for the Cowboys’ head coaching job, “It isn’t what Garrett is that should have the Cowboys and their fans so excited, but rather what he will be.  He’s young.  He’s aggressive.  He’s confident.”  Most importantly, he’s adaptable–it is Garrett’s ability to evolve which will have the Cowboys thriving sooner rather than later.

4.  The Cowboys were slightly “unlucky” in 2010.

In my site bio, I wrote:

As a self-proclaimed “numbers guy,” I have always been fascinated by the way mathematics and statistics, if used properly, can thoroughly explain seemingly complex phenomena.  Like the motion of the planets or the path of an ant, I truly believe football can be perfectly represented by numbers.

One formula that has always intrigued me is Pythagorean Win Expectation.  Like many of the stats I use, it originated in baseball.  When adapted to football, the formula predicts the number of wins a team “should” have given their points scored and allowed.  Pythagorean Win Expectation is a far superior tool in forecasting a team’s future record than even their past record.  This is because it takes “luck” out of the equation.

In football, the formula is PF^2.37/(PF^2.37 + PA^2.37).  Why an exponent of 2.37?  I’ll take the pragmatic stance and say “because it works.”  There’s nothing “magical” about 2.37–it simply has been proven more effective at predicting future records than 2.00 or 2.50, that’s all.

When we calculate the 2010 Cowboys’ Pythagorean Win Expectation based on their points scored and yielded, we see that they “should have” had a win percentage of .440–equivalent to 7.04 wins.  This isn’t significantly superior to the six wins they recorded, but it’s still interesting to know the team’s six total wins isn’t perfectly representative of how they played.

3.  Rob Ryan’s innovative defensive schemes will dramatically alter the Cowboys’ defensive efficiency.

A few weeks ago, I detailed how Ryan’s schemes will affect the Cowboys’ defensive success in 2011.  In that post, I was particularly interested in Ryan’s “Nickel” and “Psycho” fronts (below).

Nickel Front

Psycho Front

I love these concepts because they implement a defense’s premiere pass-rushers.  In a game that is creeping toward a 70 percent pass rate, these may very well be the alignments of the future.

In addition to unique alignments, Ryan figures to bring more zone blitzes to Dallas this season.  This should allow the defense to apply more pressure without becoming extremely vulnerable in the secondary.

2.  Tony Romo will be back and better than ever.

Despite “poor” play in 2010, the quarterback was still on pace for a career-high 69.5 percent completion percentage, and his 94.5 passer rating was right on par with his career average.  That passer rating came in spite of a pedestrian 11:7 touchdown-to-interception ratio–one of the reasons I provided him with a “B” in my 2010 Quarterback Grades.

To excel in 2011, Romo will have to improve in non-blitz situations.  My recent study on Romo vs. the blitz suggested that he is a premiere quarterback in the face of pressure, but just average when teams sit back in coverage.

1.  The pressure is off.

The Cowboys have played notoriously poor in high-pressure situations.  Last year, they entered the season as the favorite to win the entire NFC and participate in a “home” Super Bowl.  The pressure clearly got to them.

This season, expectations are low.  The ‘Boys have plenty to prove.  Are they simply a collection of talented football players, or are they an elite team?  They should come out firing with their backs against the wall and nothing to lose.

Nonetheless, at some point, this team will need to learn to win when they are supposed to win.  The underdog role will eventually wear off.  Will the Cowboys fold under the pressure or finally live up to their potential?  For the reasons I’ve listed above, I believe it will be the latter.


19 (Very) Bold Dallas Cowboys Predictions for the 2010 NFL Season

Jonathan Bales

I love making predictions.  Last year, I hit on quite a few of them.

So far this week, I’ve already posted my 2010 fantasy football predictions, “regular” football predictions, and Week 1 picks.  These aren’t your run-of-the-mill “Cowboys will be between 4-12 and 14-2” predictions either.  They are bold to the point of being brash, my friend.

I have a lot of thoughts on the Cowboys’ 2010 season, and the most “drastic” of them are listed below.  Keep in mind that I’m not just saying these things to say them. . .I actually believe each has a better chance of coming to fruition than not.

1.  Tony Romo will lead the league in passing yards.

With more three-receiver sets likely for Dallas and possibly even a higher pass ratio (which I actually support), 4500+ yards is very, very attainable.  The other “top dogs” in contention include Aaron Rodgers, Matt Schaub, Drew Brees, and Peyton Manning.

2.  Jason Hatcher will record at least five sacks.

This is somewhat bold for a player with one sack last year and 1.6 sacks-per-season during his four-year career.  However, as you can see to the left, Hatcher recorded 17 pressures last season–tied for the most of any defensive end.  The 4.40 percent rate at which he reached the quarterback was also the best on the team.

Hatcher should see more snaps this seasons as well, particularly because he’s Marcus Spears’ primary backup.  With Spears likely to be on another team in 2011, the Cowboys may try to phase Hatcher into the starting lineup, assuming he can hold up against the run.

3.  Tashard Choice will score 8+ TDs

I already think Choice should be the team’s short-yardage back.  He was five-for-seven in limited short-yardage opportunities last season and led the team with 5.8 yards-per-carry on runs up the middle (which is why I gave him a ‘B+’ in my 2009 running back grades).

Apart from the fact that I think Dallas will use more Wildcat in the red zone this season (which is exactly what they should do), Choice is the third option behind two players who don’t have the most injury-free of pasts.  If either Marion Barber or Felix Jones goes down for an extended period of time, Choice could be “the man”–he’s already the team’s best all-around running back, in my opinion.

4.  Alan Ball will move back to cornerback (full-time) at some point this season in favor of Akwasi Owusu-Ansah at free safety.

The Cowboys obviously already view both Ball and AOA as safety/cornerbacks or they wouldn’t have kept only three “true” cornerbacks on the 53-man roster.  Having said that, I think Ball’s tackling will become a liability for Dallas at some point this season.  He struggled mightily against the run in the preseason, and last year he missed 22.2 percent of his attempts.  If he doesn’t make a lot of plays in the passing game to compensate for his lack of elite tackling ability, I think ‘Kwasi could get a shot.

5.  Speaking of AOA. . .he will have at least one return touchdown this season.

I loved what I saw from AOA on returns during the preseason.  More than anything, he was decisive.  That’s perhaps the most important trait for a return man to possess.  Felix Jones is explosive, but he became indecisive on kick returns and was subsequently quite ineffective.

AOA should end up manning both return positions by season’s end (or perhaps even by opening night if the Cowboys don’t use Dez Bryant on punt returns).

6.  Victor Butler will play close to 250 snaps and will record at least five sacks.

The kid has shown he is ready for more playing time.  There’s no way Coach Phillips wants DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer playing 1,100+ snaps again this season, so either Butler or Brandon Williams will have to step up.

Butler was phenomenal in the preseason, particularly against the run (and we know he can get to the passer).

7.  Anthony Spencer will lead the team in sacks.

If Spencer played on just about any other team, this prediction might not be very daring.  When you play alongside DeMarcus Ware, though, no one is really expecting you to lead the team in sacks.

Well expect it, folks.  Spencer is sure to see less double teams than Ware and actually led the squad in sacks over the second half of last season.  Butler will likely steal some of his snaps, but that may just increase his efficiency.

8.  Dez Bryant will have a solid, but not spectacular, rookie season.

800 yards and 6 TDs is a realistic expectation.  He simply won’t see enough targets for much more.  He’s starting the season as the third option, and even if (when) he overtakes Roy Williams, he still has to battle Miles Austin, Jason Witten, and the running game for looks.

9.  Jason Williams will have a pick-six at some point this season, and he will do a backflip after he scores.

I just really want to see this.  Williams promised me awhile ago he will do a backflip if he scores this season.  Just don’t touch the ground, Jason.

10.  David Buehler will be a top five kicker in terms of accuracy.

Now I’m just getting crazy.  Honestly, I have no good reason to believe this will happen, but kickers’ performances vary so much from year to year that there’s really no good reason why it won’t happen, either.

Let’s hope Buehler is in the upper echelon of kickers.  I’ve shown before that the difference between a 70 percent kicker and a 90 percent kicker is rather substantial.

11.  Phil Costa will be starting at some point this season–and he’ll do well.

Let’s face it–the Cowboys’ offensive line is old, particularly in the interior.  The big hogs inside have an average age of 31.7.

Left guard Kyle Kosier is already hurt, meaning Costa is one injury away from starting as of now.  If Gurode goes down, I have a feeling the ‘Boys would turn to Costa over Kosier to replace him.  Costa looked really good in the preseason, albeit against primarily second-teamers.

12.  Bradie James will make the Pro Bowl.

It can sometimes be tough for a 3-4 inside linebacker to gain recognition.  The outside backers get all the glory, but the guys inside are nearly just as vital.

For the Cowboys, James’ importance is severely under-appreciated.  He’s on the field basically all the time, and he does everything really, really well.  He’s shown improvement in pass coverage this preseason, and I think Coach Phillips may blitz him more than ever this year.  If that’s the case, James should be able to put up all-around numbers that can come closer to matching his overall ability than ever before.

13.  Mike Jenkins will haul in at least seven interceptions.

“Ladies and gentlemen, today we have Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis going to camp with us.  Jerry tells the jokes.  Dean sings the songs and gets the girls.”

– Coach Boone in ‘Remember the Titans’

Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman are the “Jerry and Dean” of the Cowboys.  Yeah, Jenkins makes big-time plays and “gets the girls,” but Newman’s role is just as important.  Without Newman’s coverage ability, Jenkins would never get challenged enough to secure seven picks.

And he will get seven picks.

By the way, I just realized that quote is really quite irrelevant to my point and makes for an awful analogy, but I’m deciding to keep it in because I like it.

14.  The Cowboys will run less draws in 2010.

Dallas ran a draw 128 times last season, which comprised 30.0 percent of their overall running plays.  In my ultimate guide to Dallas Cowboys draws, I noted that the Cowboys averaged a full yard less on draws as compared to non-draws.

The numbers would seem to suggest that the ‘Boys aren’t a great draw-running team, but that’s simply not the case.  Romo is as good as any quarterback in the league at faking the slant before handing off on draw plays, and the running backs all possess an adequate skill set to do well on them.

The problem came in the abundance of draws.  The team simply dialed up the draw too often in 2010 and it subsequently limited its effectiveness.  I think you’ll see the Cowboys run closer to 75 draws this season (particularly out of spread formations), with much better results.

15.  Dallas will run more counters, screens, playaction passes, and rollouts.

Ready for some interesting stats?

  • Felix Jones ran for 220 yards on 22 counters in 2009.  For all the Redskins fans reading out there, that’s, like, 10.0 yards-per-carry.  The team averaged 7.9 yards-per-carry altogether on counters last season. Here is my study on counters.
  • The Cowboys threw a screen pass on just 7.1 percent of non-playaction passes, but that rate increased to 22.9 percent on playaction passes.
  • In my ultimate guide to Dallas Cowboys playaction passes, I noted that 63.9 percent of playaction passes went to the right side of the field in ’09, compared to just 37.0 percent of non-playaction throws.
  • Of the 83 playaction passes, only four, FOUR, were attempts of 20 yards or more.   That is 4.8 percent of all pass plays.  In comparison, the Cowboys threw the ball downfield 20 yards or more on 46 of the other 467 attempts, or 9.9 percent of all passes.
  • The Cowboys ran only four (FOUR!) playaction passes all season with 1-4 yards-to-go, and just 18 with less than 10 yards-to-go (only 19.8 percent of all playaction passes).
  • Dallas used designed rollouts less than once per game in 2009.

16.  Strong side dives from “Double Tight Strong” will all but make their way out of the playbook.

They were fun while they lasted, weren’t they?  Actually, they were awful.

Last season, the ‘Boys ran 116 plays from “Double Tight Strong,” 71.6 percent of which were strong side dives.  That rate increased to 85.7 percent when Dallas motioned into the formation.

In my in-depth study on the formation, I made the following observations:

Weeks 1-5 (Dallas ran the formation just five times per game over the first four weeks, so defenses likely had yet to recognize it as a trend): 7.8 yards-per-carry

Weeks 6-17: 4.4 yards-per-carry, including just 3.2 YPC against all teams but Oakland

Weeks 1-17: Ran strong side dive out of the formation 83/116 times (71.6 percent), including an incredible 42/49 times (85.7 percent) when motioning into it.

The play has stuck around this year through the preseason, but I have a feeling it will die out.  The only way it can become effective is if Garrett varies his play-calling from the formation.  In fact, a high rate of dive plays could be worthwhile if the offense, at least once in awhile, faked the dive and went deep.  That never happened in ’09, though.

17.  The Cowboys will be just 4-4 on the road.

The schedule is tough for every NFC East team, but check out these road opponents: Washington, Houston, Minnesota, Green Bay, New York Giants, Indianapolis, Arizona, and Philadelphia.  Even if they go 2-1 on the road against the division (a very difficult task), Dallas would still have to go 3-2 against the remaining opponents to be above .500.

Washington, Arizona, and even Philly late in the year are all very winnable, but Houston, Minny, Green Bay, New York, and Indy are all nightmare road games.

18.  The Cowboys will get to the NFC Championship game, but lose to the Packers.

I picked Green Bay to win the Super Bowl, but let me be clear: I don’t think the Packers are a better team than the Cowboys.  I do think they have a better chance of winning home field advantage, though, simply because of their division.  The Cowboys will probably have to go at least 5-1 in the NFC East to have a shot at home field.  That same record is much easier for Green Bay to attain in the NFC North.

If Dallas has to travel to Green Bay late in January, there’s no way they’ll be the favorite to win.  If the Cowboys do end up winning home field advantage, my prediction may be different.

19.  Wade Phillips will still be the Cowboys’ coach in 2011.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Wade Phillips is a Championship quality coach.  He’s a gaudy 33-15 during his three years in Dallas.  The component of the team which he monitors most closely, the defense, was ranked No. 2 in the NFL last season.

He’s just 1-2 in the playoffs with Dallas, but three games is hardly an adequate sample size to determine a coach’s worth.  I am a big believer in giving coaches time to implement changes and multiple chances to win the ultimate prize, assuming all of the right signs are present.

For Phillips, the signs of greatness, like it or not, are very present.


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