The Data Says: Two Keys For A Dallas Cowboys Playoff Berth


With just nine players under contract remaining from the roster he took over midway through the 2010 season, the Dallas Cowboys reporting to training camp this week are truly all Jason Garrett’s.

The Cowboys head coach landed in Oxnard, Calif. Thursday with largely his team and his staff of Right Kind of Guys. After inheriting a culture of entitlement and a 1-7 structure fire, Redball has executed a comprehensive organizational makeover, weathered staff hires that very likely were not his own, led a playoff run through the untimely death of a player, implemented scheme changes, and fielded December defenses the past two seasons comprised largely of street free agents and practice squad pickings. Here are the holdover RKGs from previous regimes:

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The organizational gains and game-day challenges have amounted to three straight 8-8s. Those who watch the team closely and ignore the “analysis” of TV experts can see this organization has moved forward over the past three seasons. Those macro gains have yet to translate to wins on the field, but they will. Whether or not that happens this year will depend largely on the breaks. Garrett looks to field his deepest team to date in 2014, but it won’t be a juggernaut. It likely won’t be exempt from the realities of a league bent on legislating parity. With the exception of a few dominant and pathetic outliers, just a handful of plays over the course of a 16-game season will separate 6-10 from 10-6.

Neither record would surprise me for these Cowboys, so long as quarterback Tony Romo’s back is healthy. If I’m Pete Carroll I have full confidence that Brandon Weeden can manage my defending Super Bowl champions to 10 wins and a playoff berth; if I’m Jason Garrett I’m less optimistic. With a young and untested defense, these Cowboys will likely need to lean on Romo’s playmaking ability if they’re to compete for a playoff spot.

What will it take to make the playoffs in 2014? Some will sneer it takes a “winner” at quarterback. Engaging with those folks actually destroys brain cells, like sniffing glue or watching NFLAM. Instead, today let’s look at data: PPG For, and PPG Against for playoff teams over the past three seasons. It’s not as intuitive a measurement as belligerently asserting the Cowboys have a “loser” at quarterback, but that sentiment always struck me as more reactive than predictive. Besides, wins are a team stat.

Here are the average Points Per Game numbers for the 12 NFL playoff teams in each of the past three seasons:

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The numbers are remarkably consistent – the average playoff team over the past three years scores about 26 points per game and yields about 20, achieving a typical spread of six points per game. There are outliers, of course. The 2011 Broncos, for example, won their division and beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in the wild card round of the playoffs; during the regular season they scored just 19.3 ppg and gave up 24.4 ppg for a staggering -5.1 ppg differential. Odd that the NFLAM types should scorn Tim Tebow – after all, the guy is clearly a “winner.”

Here are the Cowboys over the past three seasons.

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Garrett’s teams have yet to make the playoffs, but it doesn’t appear as though any of them deserved to.

The needle for the offense is pointing up, though. Makes sense, as during this time the Cowboys have invested heavily in the draft on the offensive line and only three 2011 starters – Romo, wide receiver Dez Bryant and tight end Jason Witten – started the same positions in 2013. That’s 73 percent turnover in three years. Jerry can call it what he wants, but that’s rebuilding. And it seems to have worked. Last year, the offense scored more than the average playoff team. For the first time in the Garrett Era, Dallas fielded an objectively playoff-caliber offense.

And the defense has just been eroding. In 2011 it was close to average for a playoff team. The Cowboys invested on that side of the ball in the 2012 draft, and haven’t really hit yet with any of those picks. But guys like cornerback Morris Claiborne, rushman Tyrone Crawford, linebacker Kyle Wilber and safety Matt Johnson all have wide-open position battles this summer – as I outlined several weeks back, any one of them has the talent and the opportunity to make an impact on a defense that badly needs playmakers.

What will it take for the Cowboys to make the playoffs? The data says a spread of six points per game should do it: 26 ppg from the offense, and 20 ppg from the defense. With a healthy Romo, the offense will likely hold up its end. Asking the defense to improve by a full touchdown per game seems a bit strong. Perhaps if the offense can push it up to 30 ppg, getting a field goal worth of improvement and 24 ppg from the defense will be enough to net Garrett his first NFC East title.