Being in Houston for Super Bowl week is a time to get ready for the big game, but it is also a chance to reflect a little more on the Cowboys season that was (and get that 2017 draft notebook prepared).
So with Senior Bowl tape and prospects waiting, I wanted to use today to evaluate the 2016 rookie class a bit, now that is has a year's worth of miles on the tires.
Let's start here: I have spent 19 years covering the Dallas Cowboys and I have never seen a draft like this. I am reminded to not use superlatives when discussing this compared to great drafts in Cowboys history, or even NFL history, but we have to be honest -- this one seems historic. Time will be required for us to know where some of these guys go in their careers and we certainly have to consider that two of the top four picks have yet to play a single snap, but the excitement level from the 2016 draft is incredibly high.
Not only that, but as you watch the Pro Bowl festivities, or even just your random NFL Films summaries of what this season brought us, it seems pretty clear that the league is infatuated with Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott. They not only play well, but they play with an attractiveness that suggests people are tuning in for them. They are interesting and have something extra that makes them, potentially, the next big thing in the NFL. They are at least the flavor of the month, for sure. We can only imagine how nuts Super Bowl week would have been had they gone all the way to that point as rookies.
Instead, the playoff one-and-done will have to serve as the opening chapter of their book and the adversity that drove them to greater heights in the seasons to follow. (We think.)
But sometimes, we need to look at raw numbers. And that is why snap counts are a statistic that is very useful these days. The first time I remember them cited was less than a decade ago, but it is certainly incredibly useful information when you consider what NFL teams deal with to make sure they have quality on the field.
Each game averages out to about 65 offensive snaps. So, 65 on offense and 65 more on defense is 130 plays per game. Then you multiply it by 11 players on the field for each snap and 16 regular season games, and you arrive at a number between 45,000 and 50,000 snaps per season each team needs to have accounted for.
Consider that some years you don't draft rookies who are good enough to play right away. You have developmental players -- or, perhaps you are lucky enough to have a roster with no vacancies, so rookies are all drafted as backups or special team players (the disaster that was the 2009 draft).
But in 2016, the Cowboys drafted so well that they had instant starters at some of the most important positions, including, of course, the most important position. I cannot stress how much the development of Dak Prescott will affect every thought about this draft. Let's be honest, Zeke at No. 4 is exactly the type of player you would want to get at No. 4. If you got ordinary at that spot, you would hear about it for years. But they got extraordinary.
Now, with Prescott and the huge potential of linebacker Jaylon Smith, the sky seems like the limit for this group, to perhaps do something like the Seahawks' drafts of 2010-2012, when they basically built a multiple-Super Bowl team by hitting on guys in April at key positions, well past the first round, for three straight years.
And when you fill in the other spots with guys like Maliek Collins, Charles Tapper and Anthony Brown, you might actually get six key players from one draft. That would be an amazing haul. And you still have a few late-round lottery tickets, like tight end Rico Gathers, to wait and see on heading into camp next season.
But this post is about raw numbers, as opposed to judging quality. As in, how much did your rookie class help you?
First, we need to know how many players are contributing. Again, this will never be on equal footing, because every year brings challenges. Bad teams play more rookies and so do injured teams. Good teams don't need them as much, in general. So we can't always throw a parade for using rookies. It generally means your year is going poorly.
ROOKIES WHO PLAYED 1 SNAP EACH YEAR: 2012-16
So here is the quantity-versus-quality argument. Playing nine rookies means the wheels on your season fell way off. You get tons of total snaps from rookies, but did you build your next foundation? Doubtful. This season, the Cowboys weren't pulling rookies off the street just to play them. They played just five of them.
Now let's measure 500-snap rookies:
ROOKIES WHO PLAYED 500 SNAPS EACH YEAR: 2012-16
This is the list you should care about. These are guys who became starters. In 2012, it was Morris Claiborne. In 2013, Travis Frederick, Terrance Williams, J.J. Wilcox and Jeff Heath all broke 500 snaps. In 2014, it was Zack Martin and Anthony Hitchens. In 2015, it was Byron Jones and La'el Collins.
But, in 2016, you had Elliott, Prescott, Collins and Brown. Kevon Frazier was the only rookie to play but not reach 500 snaps. That is astounding.
So let's circle back to the very top and find out how many total snaps are being handled by the rookie class:
TOTAL SNAPS BY ROOKIE CLASSES FROM 2012-16
So, you see, in a year when the Cowboys had very few injuries, they also had a ton of rookie snaps played. Not as many as in 2013, but in 2013, the injuries were everywhere.
The takeaway? This draft was amazing. You already knew that, but the idea that Smith and Tapper didn't play at all has you wondering if the 2016 class would have easily cleared 4,000 snaps this season and still helped put together a 13-3-type of year.
Play the rookies a ton and still win all the games? That makes you think 2017-20 could be pretty a special time around here.
On Wednesday, we looked at the impressive numbers for the Cowboys offense. Now, we give Rod Marinelli's department a similar look. What is interesting about the current story of the Cowboys defense is how attached it is to the offense. This, of course, is part of football. The defense and the offense work together (with the special teams - all three phases) and are connected in a symbiotic relationship where the offense is largely thought of as one of the best tools the defense has.
This seems to make plenty of sense when it works. When it doesn't work, we generally arrive back at the starting point, which is, the only way to get better defensively is to improve the defense.
While that sounds obvious, we have literally spent the last year hearing how a running back was the best way to improve the defense. And, to the credit of those who made that dubious claim, it does work to a point. Unfortunately, that point is somewhere between being a playoff team and being a world champion.
You could make the case that the Cowboys defense was only "lit up" four times. And, in those four games - at Washington (432 yards), at Pittsburgh (448 yards), vs. Washington on Thanksgiving (505 yards), and the playoff game against Green Bay (413 yards), the Cowboys were still 3-1.
Unfortunately, the road to Super Bowl 51 required beating Green Bay's offense, Atlanta's offense, and then New England's offense. In other words, three of the top four offenses (Dallas is fifth) in the entire NFL. Also, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, and Tom Brady - three likely top finalists for the MVP.
So, the if the bar has changed around here in the last 12 months - from "let's win the division and make the playoffs" to "we need a Super Bowl trophy immediately", then the objectives on defense need to change from "let's try to have a league-average defense" to "we need to figure out how to give ourselves a chance to beat the very best offenses in the league in the playoffs".
Easier said than done. But, first, let's evaluate where the defense finished in those big categories from the 2016 regular season:
POINTS PER GAME ALLOWED - 5TH
If you want to feel good about Marinelli's defense, look at these numbers. The 5-year window shows Rob Ryan's 2012, Monte Kiffin's disastrous 2013, and then three years of Marinelli. The ranks, in order, 24th, 26th, 15th, 16th, and now 5th. Again, of all of the stats you have, let's not lose sight of the beauty of scoring defense. There are many reasons that this happens - and plenty of them are offense related, of course, but if you are stopping your opponent and keeping them under 20 points per game, you are in great shape.
The four teams above the Cowboys are New England, New York Giants, Denver, and Seattle. Dallas was second to New England in first-half points allowed and then fell to 10th in the second half of games. Still, this is a very impressive job by Marinelli to build a defense that has never been in the bottom half of the league - even in the injury-marred 2015.
YARDS PER GAME ALLOWED - 14TH
If you are ever wondering why people hate to use raw yardage to evaluate your defense and why it frustrates so many that this is the archaic way to determine who is the "No. 1 defense", it is because raw yardage tells you almost nothing. No context on number of snaps or drives or penalties or starting field position or what part of the game or every other relevant detail in the name of this big pile of numbers.
That said, if we look at it, we see the Cowboys' ranking is not as impressive as the points allowed. Here, they rank 14th in 2016 and a five-year ranking of: 19th, 32nd, 19th, 17th, and 14th. It would seem that you can believe the Cowboys are more of a middle-of-the road defense than the fifth-best defense in the NFL that points suggests.
But, either way, Marinelli has done a great job over three years at consistently keeping the opponent at roughly 350 a game. This, is basically "break-even" in the NFL, which is all you can expect given how little the Cowboys have invested in their defense over the last five years (compared to the offense).
3RD DOWN DEFENSE - 15TH
This slipped a bit as the season went along, and by the end the Cowboys were exactly at league average on third downs. The NFL converted at 39.7 percent in 2016 and by the end, they pretty much sat right there.
Five-year rolling ranks: 23rd, 29th, 27th, 15th, and now 15th again. So, from that perspective, once again we congratulate Rod Marinelli for his fine work. But, we also note that the Cousins-Roethlisberger-Rodgers trio did pretty well on third down, so they will need some pass rush improvement.
TAKEAWAYS - 19TH
Twenty takeaways is an improvement from 2015. That doesn't take much since 2015 was the lowest takeaway total in the history of the NFL. So, the Cowboys nearly doubled that to 20, but still come in under the average of 22 and the playoff-team average of 23.
Five-year rolling rankings: 28th, 13th, 2nd, 32nd, and now 19th. So, it sure looks like there is no relation on a season-to-season basis. They do not go hunting for takeaways, but rather seem to play a protective style that bends but tries not to break. It is a choice, and they choose to let the turnovers come to them.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
We could go on and on with smaller stats. They do not face many possessions and almost nobody runs on them because of the offense. They get sacks at about a league average now, but nobody fears their players individually. In fact, it only took 6.5 sacks to lead the team.
They need more talent. It is pretty simple. What they have is working its tail off and squeezing its most potential, but they just need more special players.
The numbers are actually quite solid, but the talent level is just not where it needs to be. Several years of investing all big assets into the offense has worked well, but has left the defense with the scraps. Atlanta was able to fix its talent issues in two drafts and found six starters who are now leading its defense with youthful athleticism that actually seems to be pretty decent at causing problems here in the playoffs for Seattle and Green Bay.
Marinelli is great, but I do wonder if the Cowboys need a more aggressive defense to complement their offense moving forward. Attacking rather than "keeping things in front of them" would be my adjustment in 2017. Let's see what they decide this spring.
As we continue to look back at 2016, I thought it would be a very worthy exercise to look through the data the NFL produces regarding each team's performance in roughly 300 categories. Today, it will be the offense's turn, and tomorrow we will use the same method to look at the Cowboys' defense.
By all measures, the offense did a fantastic job. It then converts to absurdly fantastic when you come to grips with the fact that a largely ignored fourth-round rookie quarterback was running the whole thing. To prove that sports fans will look each and every gift horse in the mouth, the consternation and seeming dissatisfaction of not matching or exceeding every offense, in every category, has been heard. Some, I guess, expected Dak Prescott to outperform all of the $25-million-per-season quarterbacks in his first year of professional football, and/or they expected Tony Romo to suddenly heal from all of his repeated health issues and then perform at the top end of his career ladder without any notable action in roughly two years. Regardless, the gift horse delivered at levels that should get everyone excited about the future, especially with the premise that with familiarity, Prescott's performance should improve to even greater heights.
There are certainly many statistics that an offense can be measured on, but there are some big ones that stand above all the others.
Wins are the biggest. But that is a team metric. Wins requires the defense and special teams to pull their weight, too. So let's set that aside and look at offense-only numbers within a five-year window:
POINTS PER GAME: 5th
The Cowboys ranked fifth in the NFL at 26.3 points per game. They trailed Atlanta, New Orleans, New England and Green Bay. They outperformed the league average by 57 points and playoff teams' average by 30 points.
Here is the five-year trend:
Interestingly enough, the five-year ranks are 15th (2012), fifth (2013), fifth (2014), 31st (2015) and fifth (2016). So regardless of the slight difference in production between the 2013, 2014 and 2016 seasons, the Cowboys ranked fifth each time. Each time, New England was above them. Two years, Denver and Green Bay joined them. So basically, the Cowboys have had an elite offense, but were just a few rungs from the very top.
That said, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers are the only quarterbacks to outperform the Cowboys in those three seasons during that window. So that will do for winning the NFC East and pretty much the NFC, in general, from a scoring standpoint.
YARDS PER GAME: 5th
Here again, the Cowboys finished fifth in yards per game with a very impressive 376 yards per. We also documented earlier in the year that they set the franchise record for 400-yard games with nine. They trailed New Orleans, Atlanta, Washington and New England in yards per game this season. The average NFL team was at 350, and the average for playoff teams was at 359.
You can see that the five-year trend has been up and down, with very little correlation between points scored and total yardage, it seems. The five-year ranks, starting in 2012, for Dallas in the league: sixth, 16th, seventh, 22nd and fifth. So from a rankings standpoint, the 2016 Cowboys finishing fifth is the high-water mark over that stretch. It also shows you that the sport is trending a bit back toward defense as numbers taper off a bit.
3RD-DOWN OFFENSE: 10th
Here is one of the most important statistics in the entire sport -- third downs. This is where so much is determined and drives are extended. Especially if you want to be a run-first team, you have to know you are going to be faced with a dozen or more third downs per week. In fact, Dallas was right at that number with 11.8 chances per game. They converted on 42.3 percent of them (80 of 189), which placed them 10th in the entire league:
The league average in 2016 was 39.7 percent, and the playoff-team average was 40.3 percent. Finishing 10th is very good, given the circumstances, but you will want to raise the bar in 2017.
This is where the 2014 Cowboys were clearly superior. But before you have that Tony Romo parade, you should know that the year before (2013), he led the team to 25th. The five-year trend from 2012-2016, in league rankings: fifth, 25th, second, 27th and now 10th. Each season, they go back and forth from great to horrid and back to great again. This statistic has been anything but consistent during this window.
And finally, for our "big stats," we look at turnovers. It is great to put up productive numbers, but if you are then giving the ball away, you undo all the good you have done. That sort of self-sabotage has hurt many offenses, including some of those 8-8 teams around here from 2011-2013. The league average is 22 giveaways, and playoff teams averaged 18.
I was pretty shocked that 15 giveaways only gets you to fifth. But Atlanta, New England, Buffalo and Oakland actually gave the ball away fewer times. Two of those teams also put up more yards per game, so if you want to win with "elite offense," you see where the bar has been set. Get all of the points, yards and never give the ball away. Wow.
Five-year rankings for Dallas in this department: 25th in 2012, eighth in 2013, 20th in 2014, 31st in 2015 and fifth in 2016. So again, this was the best season in the five-year window.
BELOW LEAGUE-AVERAGE STATS
So there are the four big stats (for me) on offense, and the offense ranked near the top of the league in all of them. Like I wrote at the top, there are all sorts of sub-categories (well over 100) and offensive metrics that are produced, but as I look at them all, I found almost none where the Cowboys were not at least league-average. But in the interest of full disclosure, here they are:
-- 18th - Third down-and-10+
They finished at 20.4 percent and league average was 20.5 percent.
-- 22nd - Big plays of 20+ yards
They finished third in plays of 10+ yards, but the bigger plays were four below league average.
-- 28th - 20-yard passes
-- 25th - Yards after the catch
The Cowboys finished nearly 400 yards below playoff teams in yards after catch. This could be a product of quarterback play or wide receiver explosiveness. Tough to paint that with a broad brush.
-- 23rd - Net passing yards per game
The Cowboys finished 15 yards below the per-game league average.
-- 26th - Starting drives in opponent's territory
This is actually a defense and special teams stat that shows the offense seldom was given a short field.
-- 29th - Offensive possessions
This should not shock anyone. The Cowboys played in low-possession games.
Now, many of those above numbers are electives. The Cowboys elected to play a certain style and that limited their passing numbers. It is my feeling that if they had wanted to pass more for more success, they demonstrated the ability to do so in most cases.
It also shows that they were dominating on the ground and will continue to be that way, we assume.
Now, remember: There were dozens and dozens of positive numbers and almost no negative numbers from the offense. This was a fantastic offensive team.
But as we saw, an elite offense has company in this league. So either you are flawless, or you need a more balanced roster.
Tomorrow we look at things from a defensive perspective and see how they did compared to the league average in their five-year window.
Well, we have waited the requisite 7 days since the final Dallas Cowboys game of the 2016 season and allowed the dust to settle from a disappointing end to a fantastic season. Now, on this day, the coaching staff is off to Florida for the Pro Bowl and the scouting staff is off to Alabama for the Senior Bowl.
That leaves the players to scatter to the 4 corners of the globe in search of rest and relaxation where the water is clear and the sun is warm. They earned it and will be asked to be back in the weight room within 4-6 weeks, so give them this.
Now, one thing that does grab you as you look at the regrettable end of another season is the reality that this group of guys will never be together in totality again. Sure, the young Cowboys seem to be the start of something big, but this group - the 60 or so players who contributed to the 13-3 Cowboys of 2016 - will have the normal subtraction of 20 pieces and those will be changed out with 20 new players moving forward.
This most normally happens with the loss of free agents going out and the draft coming in. This is the conveyor belt of talent that every organization deals with. Yes, a few retirements and cuts of contracts with time left. And yes, the occasional veteran free agent will be acquired. But, we have 18 names that are now out of contract. Let's see which should be top priorities to try to keep if the price can be found to be agreeable before March:
Here are the 18 names - Brandon Carr, Rolando McClain, Morris Claiborne, Ron Leary, Barry Church, Mark Sanchez, Andrew Gachkar, Darren McFadden, Lance Dunbar, Jack Crawford, Gavin Escobar, Terrell McClain, Justin Durant, Josh Thomas, Terrance Williams, Kellen Moore, JJ Wilcox, and Brice Butler.
TOP 5 NAMES TO CONSIDER - In no particular order:
Barry Church, SS - At age 28, Barry Church has been a major part of this thing for his entire career. He plays his tail off, is never noticeably attacked, and appears to be a major part of the defensive leadership. I certainly like the utility he provides in the box and his durability has usually kept him in the mix. This is a player I would like to keep at the right cost.
Ron Leary, G - It sure seemed like his time was short when the rumors of a trade last summer popped up. He seemed unlikely to get an offer back then, but after his 2016, I don't know how the Cowboys just walk away without trying. He is a warrior in the trenches and is seldom exposed or beaten. Yes, he still has the possibility of long-term health concerns, but after 5 seasons with the team, I have very little negative to say about Leary. I might keep him and kick La'el Collins out to right tackle to replace Doug Free.
Terrell McClain, DT - For much of the year I thought McClain was easily the best 1-technique on the roster. Yes, the Cowboys now have options and should probably resist to put too much on a run-stuffing DT, but when he is right, he is really impressive. I really like what he brings to the table and competes, but I will also grant you that he has not shown he has 16 games in him so you have to be careful.
Terrance Williams, WR - This is really interesting. A few months ago, he was being compared to Brice Butler, but I believe his year quieted that down. He is a far more accomplished than Butler but also not a proper Dez Bryant replacement when Dez is out. So, there is that middle ground where he is worth the trouble and that price is likely more than anyone wants to admit. So, do you want Williams at $6 million to $7 million a season? Tough call, but if you don't go get him, you will have a pretty big void to consider and might need to take a WR pretty high in April.
Morris Claiborne, CB - I am likely walking away from Mo. Corners are expensive - especially at age 26. Talk about sticker shock. I am not interested in putting much money on Claiborne because he has not really proven much to me since his rookie year. Yes, he has a high bar because of his spot and he has never been fully healthy, but if you are trying to decide between Brandon Carr and Claiborne, you simply look at who is always out there and who isn't. Carr might be getting close to the end, but he still gives you 1,000 snaps a year and plays about 980 of them really well. And will come cheaper.
So that is the top group of choices. Many come at positions where you might have to choose between 2 players who are both UFAs: At WR it is Butler or Williams. At CB, Church or Claiborne. At DL, McClain or Jack Crawford. At safety, Church or JJ Wilcox.
Then you have other spots like Lance Dunbar or Gavin Escobar that make you wonder if you have any price. Then the backup QB spot with Mark Sanchez and Kellen Moore.
I am pretty sure I would try to keep Church and Leary and otherwise, I would let the market dictate my actions after that. If Williams comes back to you at a fair price, great. What you don't want to do is to feel desperation to affect your draft. That said, keep in mind that you can likely have some options moving forward with cap room (Romo) that will allow you to grab some players in the secondary market to fill some spots.
As I look at this list, the Cowboys are in a decent spot. Nothing on here is irreplaceable. You can put some prices on them and if they take it then you have them at your price, but there is no name that makes you launch into desperation to lock them up.