The Cowboys and Well-Balanced Teams

Micah Parsons, Dallas Cowboys
Micah Parsons, Dallas Cowboys
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

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
Year Team W-L Total
Rk Off
Rk Def
2017 PIT 13-3 25.9% 4 17.5% 3 -5.4% 9 3.1% 9
2017 LAR 11-5 27.6% 3 11.3% 6 -9.5% 7 6.8% 2
2018 NO 13-3 25.2% 2 16.1% 4 -7.3% 8 1.7% 9
2019 BAL 14-2 41.2% 1 28.2% 1 -11.5% 5 1.5% 9
2019 NO 13-3 32.7% 2 22.0% 4 -7.1% 8 3.6% 3
2020 NO 12-4 33.3% 1 10.7% 7 -19.0% 2 3.6% 5
2021 DAL 7-4 21.7% 5 10.0% 7 -9.7% 4 1.9% 10

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
Weeks Off
Rk Def
Weeks 1-7 4.9% 16 -13.7% 3
Weeks 8-12 -6.8% 17 -4.1% 18

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.


11 comments, Last at 07 Dec 2021, 1:59pm

1 nice article

Wilson was ruled out yesterday. I haven't checked the news today (FO is my first stop!) but Cooper was listed as questionable and is expected to play. And Lamb should be back, so—yee-ha—Gallup should be the third WR.

2 Arbitrary end points

Top ten sounds good, but only cos we have four fingers. At least top eight would be the top quartile.

3 Saints over Cowboys.

Following trends, the Cowboys are struggling on both sides of the ball.  They'll be missing most of their coaches and it remains to be seen if Dak is healthy.  

The Saints got clobbered by the Bills (expected) and looked pathetic with Trevor at QB.  They get Hill back and will be run-heavy against a Cowboy defense that gave up 36 to the Raiders.  Saints at home are a good value to edge the Cowboys on a short week.  This comes down to not trusting Dallas on either side of the ball against a live dog at home.

As far as being DVOA balanced, it hope it's a harbinger of good fortune in the playoffs.  The Cardinals have been well balanced the whole year with the defense being slightly better than the offense.  Considering what I dealt with last year, that's playing with house money.

4 what

 it remains to be seen if Dak is healthy.

He hasn't been on the injury report

Saints at home are a good value to edge the Cowboys on a short week

They literally both played last Thursday. And the Cowboys finished their game first.

5 To clarify...

In reply to by ImNewAroundThe…

I don't know if Dak is healthy, but he has looked off for the last few weeks.  Many teams don't list QB injuries, hence why Stafford hasn't been listed on the injury report but has been battling back problems for weeks.

Maybe Dak is healthy and just playing like poo-poo.

Either way, Saints are the value pick and are at home.

7 ]ol

In reply to by DIVISION

If there's no reports of him being hurt then you shouldn't assume he is and should probably edit out how much value the Saints are because they couldn't even cover let alone win lol

9 RE: "Maybe Dak is healthy…

In reply to by DIVISION

RE: "Maybe Dak is healthy and just playing like poo-poo."

Dak is inconsistent. It has dogged him every year of his career, even his good high DYAR years. It is why he was not a no-brainer to re-sign to a long term contract. He is especially affected by even slightly cold weather, slightly windy days, and the lightest drizzle. 

Dak is great to root for—he seems like a truly great guy—but the stretches he goes through where he misses open receivers or doesn't see the most obvious of blitzes coming can be really frustrating to watch.

11 Prescott is not especially inconsistenct, relatively speaking

In the absolute, he's got some inconsistency, but such is true of all QBs. Relatively speaking? That requires some actual, careful examination. One of the flaws on the internet age is that if offers up some supporting opinions for any take, and thus any perception can feel validated by holding some support from "the crowd". More than ever, we need objective support for our takes, because we can't trust in the wisdom of opinions held by many (e.g. "Tony Romo is a choker" when the actual evidence not only disagreed with that but also pointed to him being clutch).

Prescott also was a no-brainer for a Franchise QB contract, not an utter slam dunk in the lines of a Mahomes but that isn't the only standard for no-brainer QB contracts. The contract talk analysis for Prescott and the Cowboys has grossly overlooked the impact of Prescott being a fairly-rare young Franchise QB who wasn't drafted in the first round; the impact of contract talks opening after three years, leaving only one year before payday for non-first-round QBs versus two for first round QBs is significant. The sample size for those is small, and many such QBs are fine not pushing the pay envelope (e.g. Russell Wilson), but any such QB interested in maxing his pay has every reason to push for more or wait out the open market. Remember, Prescott only needed to wait one more year without having big bucks in his bank account before he would get an unrestricted long-term deal or the big bucks of the Franchise tag; for a guy who was confident about his performance and durability, that was a very small gamble, further proven by how little his eventual pay was impacted by a major injury.

Dallas 100% wanted to pay Prescott, but Prescott's agent seemingly pushed for too much money to agree to a deal after 2018. Reading between the lines, it likely would have required close to the same sort of deal (adjusted to the cap at the time) that Prescott eventually got - in which case, why not wait to give out the contract. It isn't as if Prescott desired to go elsewhere, so the team always had that as a bit of leverage to help get a deal done.

Anyways, Prescott was schooled in the Tom Brady manner of QB play: survey the field and find the advantageous target, rather than pull the trigger on the first decent opportunity that would require at least some challenge from the throw. That means, like Brady and others of this type, Prescott will always have the appearance of "his" play more affected both by the performance of the OL (more undistracted time reading the field for fittingly open targets = more efficient passing) and his receivers (the more open they get, and the sooner/more predictably they get open = more efficient passing). That's why a rookie Prescott who was perhaps above average at best as an NFL starting QB could put up MVP-level efficiency - he's better able to utilize a stronger supporting cast than QBs of some other types - and also why Prescott will be more limited in his contingency performance when the supporting cast has major cracks. It's not a better or worse overall type to be; just different.

6 Interesting how the well…

Interesting how the well-balanced teams since 2017 were (mostly) driven by offense, with the exception of 2020 NO.