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.