The 90’s Cowboys and Passer Rating Differential


Recently, Kerry Byrne of has written a couple of pieces on Passer Rating Differential. PRD is a simple stat that subtracts each team’s defensive passer rating from their offensive passer rating, creating a snapshot of their ability, or lack thereof, to control the passing game. As Byrne points out, there is a direct correlation between Passer Rating Differential and winning. The overwhelming majority of Super Bowl champions have scored quite well in Passer Rating Differential. However, this stat should be taken with a grain of salt. It ignores important facets of the game, giving an incomplete definition of what constitutes a great team.

First of all, it makes a lot of sense that most Super Bowl champions have been good at defending the pass. It’s very difficult to win consistently with a porous secondary or an ineffective pass rush. Also, a team that can effectively shut down any opponent’s passing game will usually be very good defensively. And, as they say, defense wins championships. But, obviously, defending the pass is only part of the equation. It doesn’t matter how good your secondary is if you’re getting destroyed on the ground. Also, for the most part, defending the run and the pass goes hand in hand. If a team is weak in one area, they will eventually be vulnerable in the other as well.

Another problem with using Passer Rating Differential is that it tends to overrate teams with efficient pass oriented offenses, e.g. any proficient West Coast offense. This is why out of the five Cowboys championship teams, only the ’73 squad ranks among the top 25 Super Bowl champions in terms of PRD. All five of those teams were very good at stopping the pass, but they had, for the most part, run oriented offenses.

This is particularly true of the ’90s dynasty. As we all know, those teams played excellent defense, but their offense went through Emmitt and their monstrous offensive line first. Troy and Michael were the knock-out punch. When compared to other Super Bowl champions, they don’t score badly in Passer Rating Differential, but their true dominance is downplayed. I think Jim Kelly and company might agree with me on this one.

I’m not saying that it’s worthless to evaluate Super Bowl champions based on their Passer Rating Differential. Certainly, there is merit in showing how many have been totally dominant in the passing game. However, it doesn’t mean that dominant passing champions like the 49ers are better than the Dallas teams of the 90’s.

It’s interesting that in one of his articles Byrne calls the 90’s Cowboys “overrated”***, but specifically mentions how great the ’94 49ers were in PRD. In case you’ve forgotten, if not for a few early Dallas gifts and a glossed over blatant PI by Deion on the Playmaker, the Niners wouldn’t have been in that Super Bowl in the first place. If we’re picking teams, I’ll take the Cowboys squad that won three Super Bowls in four years over the 1994 49ers — regardless of how good PRD says they were.

The simple truth is that there is no exact blueprint for building a champion. While great defense is almost always part of the formula, some teams win with dominant run games despite having below average quarterbacks. Then there are teams like the 2000 Ravens, who were awful offensively, but so unbelievable on defense that it didn’t matter. Basically, in order to win a Super Bowl, teams must be able to dominant the game in some aspect, whether it be on defense, through the air on offense, or by imposing their will on the ground. In addition to excelling in at least one facet of the game, champions must be at least decent in the others and well above average defensively. Great teams don’t have glaring holes.

One thing worth mentioning, according to PRD, the 2007 Giants are pretty much the most overrated and luckiest Super Bowl winner ever. That’s something I can’t disagree with. If you haven’t read Byrne’s articles on PRD, you can find them here and here. He’s definitely worth the read. Though I think he’s overrating this stat a bit and his stance on the 90’s Cowboys made my head spin, I have a lot of respect for his work.

Disagree or have something to add? As always, comments are welcome.

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***Once again someone fails to account for Emmitt Smith’s greatness. Byrne points to how the 90’s dynasty only topped 12-4 once as evidence of them being overrated, but fails to account for the fact that Emmitt’s hold out in 1993 was pretty much the reason why they didn’t win 13 that year. Not to mention, it’s just silly to call the Cowboys of that era overrated anyway. Last time I checked, they kicked the crap out of the PRD proud 49ers in 1992 and 1993. Somehow, plays like the one below aren’t accounted for when it comes to PRD.