The Cowboys and Well-Balanced Teams
NFL Week 13 - The Dallas Cowboys have lost three of their last four games, but DVOA still says they're in a strong position going into the final month and a half of the 2021 season. The Cowboys currently rank fifth overall in DVOA, but what really stands out is how well-balanced the team is. Before the season, we expected the Cowboys to have a strong offense, but the defensive improvement has been a surprise. Right now, the Cowboys rank seventh on offense, fourth on defense, and 10th on special teams. That makes the Cowboys the only team in the league to rank in the top 10 for all three phases of the game this year.
Is that good? Is it rare? It's pretty good, and it's not that rare. About 1.5 teams per year will rank in the top 10 in all three phases. The Cowboys just happen to be the team this year, although the Patriots (11th on offense) and Indianapolis (12th on defense) are close.
The fun part about picking out the Cowboys as the one team to rank in the top 10 in all three phases is that the other teams that have done this recently are almost all the New Orleans Saints, tonight's Dallas opponent. Here are the six teams over the past few years that finished the season ranked in the top 10 in all three phases:
|Top 10 DVOA in All Three Phases, 2016-2021|
The Cowboys have a particularly low total DVOA for a team that ranks in the top 10 for all three phases, but not the lowest. Three teams had a total DVOA below 20% despite ranking in the top 10 for all three phases: the 1991 Chiefs, the 1992 Bills, and the 2001 Packers.
The next question: is it better to be balanced, or to be better overall when we add up all three phases? The answer appears to be that it is better to be the best team overall than the most balanced team. Since 1983:
- 29 teams finished in the top 10 of all three phases but did not finish No. 1 overall. Three of these teams (10%) won the Super Bowl.
- 20 teams finished No. 1 overall but were 11th or lower in at least one phase of the game. Five of these teams (25%) won the Super Bowl.
- 18 teams finished No. 1 overall and also in the top 10 of all three phases. Nine of these teams (50%) won the Super Bowl -- though the last three teams to do so lost in the divisional round (2015 Seattle, 2019 Baltimore, and 2020 New Orleans).
Thursday Night Football Preview
You know the Cowboys have been better than the Saints this year, and you know that the Saints were better off before Jameis Winston got hurt. The Saints defense has also declined over the last month. However, the differences may be smaller than you are expecting.
|New Orleans Saints DVOA by Week, 2021|
If the ranks seem screwy -- how do the Saints get a lot worse on offense and only drop one spot in the rankings -- it's because the league as a whole has seen offensive levels drop off over the past five weeks. The average offensive DVOA has gone from 3.9% in Weeks 1-7 to -5.8% in Weeks 8-12. (The year as a whole is normalized to average 0%, but individual weeks are not.)
The Saints have been better on offense than you expect because Trevor Siemian has been better than you think he has been. There are two reasons for this. First, he had a very good game by DVOA against Tennessee in Week 10. He averaged 8.8 yards per attempt in that game compared to 6.1 yards per attempt or lower in his other four games. Siemian has also made up for his struggles early in games by playing very well in the fourth quarter. Sometimes this is garbage time, like against Philadelphia in Week 11. Sometimes this is meaningful, like in the comeback against Tennessee that fell a 2-point conversion short or in the comeback against Atlanta that failed because Siemian led the Saints to a lead late only to see the defense give up a 64-yard reception by Cordarelle Patterson followed by a game-winning field goal. In Weeks 8-12, the Saints have -17.8% offensive DVOA in the first three quarters and 16.5% offensive DVOA in the fourth quarter.
Dallas also has weird quarter-by-quarter splits. The Cowboys are the worst defense in the league in the first quarter, then rank second in the league from the second quarter onward.
The Siemian numbers hardly matter, of course, because the Saints have made a change and will be going with Taysom Hill as the starting quarterback. For a lot of us, it's confusing that this didn't happen earlier. Hill was good enough to play over Winston last year, but this year he's behind Siemian? Hill was healthy enough to be active in last week's game, but not healthy enough to play a single snap in any of his roles? It was weird.
Overall, Hill is probably not better than Siemian. He's just different. He brings lots of running value, but it's reasonable to believe that he's not as good a passer as Siemian is. Siemian has -4.9% passing DVOA so far this year. Hill had -19.0% passing DVOA last year.
Turning things around to the Dallas offense, the Saints have had depth issues at cornerback this year. Ken Crawley has been signed and cut and re-signed and plays meaningful snaps. The Saints rank 28th in DVOA against "other wide receivers" so this could be a big game for whoever is the third receiver for Dallas... if Amari Cooper is still sick, the third receiver is probably Cedrick Wilson.
Throwing the ball makes a lot more sense than running it against a Saints defense that currently ranks No. 1 in DVOA against the run. It's an interesting test of strength against strength in the trenches, as the Cowboys rank second in adjusted line yards on offense but the Saints are second in adjusted line yards on defense. Both teams have the same weakness, too. The Cowboys are only 22nd in converting short-yardage runs, while the Saints are only 24th in preventing such conversions.