Dallas Cowboys 2021 Team Study

Part 5 of my 32-part series breaking down every team’s performance in 2021. Check out part 4 here: Miami Dolphins. Part 6 available now: Philadelphia Eagles.


Eff. RatingAdj. RatingRank
Offensive Eff. Rating (blue) v. opponent average allowed (grey).
Pass EPARush EPAAdj. Pass Rate

The Cowboys had talent all over the field on offense and displayed a willingness to adapt their weekly game plan to the defense they were facing. But this amoeba-like approach ended up costing them in the biggest spots because they simply didn’t have a defined identity on offense and they didn’t prioritize getting the ball to their most explosive playmakers when all the chips were on the table.

They made a splash early in the season with six impressive performances in their first six games. They did everything well. They ran the ball both inside and outside with two good backs behind a strong offensive line, and got the ball to their many playmakers in the passing game. With time in the pocket, Dak Prescott looked in sync with his receivers and they looked like a well-oiled machine.

Kellen Moore’s willingness to tailor game plans to an opponent’s weaknesses was never more apparent than in their first two games. Against Tampa Bay in Week 1, a notoriously strong run defense, they ran the ball on only 23.4% of their offensive snaps. They knew they could not afford to waste plays running into the Bucs’ defensive line so they didn’t try to. They also ran quick-developing routes and had Prescott target his hot reads to offset the pressure. They almost pulled off the upset thanks to a strong offensive showing.

The very next week they faced the Chargers, who finished 31st in rushing EPA/play allowed on defense. Understanding this weakness, the Cowboys ran the ball on 51.7% of their offensive snaps, racking up 198 yards on 6.4 yards per carry. They combined for a staggering 55 first downs in these first two games as they moved the ball up and down the field. It demonstrated their flexibility and adaptability and teased a high upside.

But their momentum faltered in the middle part of the season and they never fully recovered. Dak missed Week 7 against the Vikings with a calf injury. Offensive linemen and skill players were in and out of the lineup with injury and Covid issues. They had two really impressive performances down the stretch, but they came against a Washington team missing several key defenders and an Eagles team that had nothing to play for in Week 18. Chart A shows how the Cowboys’ offense performed over the course of the season if you take out those two games.   

Chart A

Chart A: Adjusted Eff. Rating by game.

Analysts have differed on what to make of Dak Prescott since he entered the league. I think this season was a perfect demonstration of who Dak is. When things are going right, the offensive line is winning, and his top-notch receivers are healthy, he can put up stats with the best of them. But I don’t think he’s capable of elevating his team when things go poorly. He has enjoyed consistently good circumstances on offense during his career and so he is probably slightly overrated as a player. But he’s not a bad quarterback and he can win a Super Bowl if the team around him plays well enough.

The problem is that they had no excuses this year. Despite some of the in-season injuries they were healthy in the playoffs and they didn’t get the job done. They also had a strong defense but it was their offense that faltered against the 49ers. Despite the early promise of effective game plans from Kellen Moore, they stubbornly ignored their most talented players in big spots. Elliott had nearly twice as many carries as Pollard despite a vastly inferior yards per carry average (4.2 to 5.5). And with the season on the line in the playoffs, they went to Cedric Wilson instead of CeeDee Lamb or Amari Cooper. It felt like they got too cute looking to take what the defense gave them, instead of imposing their will.

When I do these Team Studies, I look at a team’s performance against opponents ranked by a wide variety of metrics to identify trends. Strangely, the Cowboys offense had no trends. There were no defensive archetypes that presented unique challenges or opportunities that the Cowboys struggled with or excelled against. I think this shows their adaptability but also their lack of identity. It cuts both ways.

Maybe Mike McCarthy deserves the blame for holding them back from their potential. But it’s tough to fire a head coach when you finish as one of the top teams in the NFC and have the talent to make a run in the short term. This puts the Cowboys in a little bit of limbo. There is hope that the young Kellen Moore can continue to improve as a play-caller by getting his best players move involved. It’s great to be balanced, but you also need an identity. If the Cowboys find their offensive identity in 2022, they should have the talent to be a force once again. 


Eff. RatingAdj. RatingRank
Defensive Eff. Rating (blue) v. opponent average allowed (grey).
Pass EPARush EPABlitz RatePressure Rate

The 2021 Cowboys had one of the best records in the NFL relative to their preseason win total projections, and it wasn’t because the offense surprised anyone. One year after ranking 29th on defense, the Cowboys took a massive step forward. The primary reason? Micah Parsons. He was an absolute monster. The rookie ran away with Defensive Rookie of the Year and even earned 5 Defensive Player of the Year votes. He made offensive linemen look silly and showed incredible closing speed on the quarterback. It’s scary good when a rookie performs that well out of the gate.

On the back end, Trevon Diggs was an enigma. He led the league with an astonishing 11 interceptions. The last time a player had 11 interceptions in a season was 1981. But he also allowed more yards in coverage than any player in the NFL. Sometimes his aggressiveness cost him, as he ended up on both positive and negative highlight reels. No game illustrated this more clearly than the Patriots game, in which Diggs followed up a game-changing pick-six on one play with a blown coverage for a 75-yard touchdown on the very next snap. He is still very young, and has the talent to be a solid cover cornerback if he can improve his decision-making. But he needs to internalize that great cornerbacks aren’t defined by interceptions; they are defined by taking away the receiver as an option.

Despite significant absences from pass rushers DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory, the Cowboys excelled at getting pressure. They pressured the quarterback at the 4th-highest rate without overly relying on blitzes. This high-pressure approach led to the 3rd-lowest completion percentage allowed to opposing quarterbacks and the 3rd-highest turnover rate. They simply abused teams that couldn’t protect the quarterback, as shown by Chart B, which measures the Cowboys’ defensive adjusted Eff. Rating by each opponent’s pressure rate allowed on the season:

Chart B

Chart B: Adjusted Eff. Rating by opponent pressure rate allowed on the season.

These results are consistent with how high-pressure defenses typically perform. They thrive against bad quarterbacks and teams that can’t protect the quarterback, but lose some edge against quarterbacks and schemes that can effectively offset pressure. It can create uneven performances, where they look like the best defense in the league one week and merely average the next. There are many ways to offset high-pressure defenses and each was effective at rendering the Cowboys just average on defense. Tampa Bay (-0.23 Adj. Eff. Rating) had a quarterback who could diagnose pressure and get the ball out quickly. San Francisco (-0.10) had a strong offensive line and schemed up easy completions. This was a problem for the Cowboys, who gave up the 3rd most yards after the catch per completion.

Turnovers are difficult to predict with consistency. But I argue that, when tied to pressure rate, turnovers can be predictive. A team that consistently pressures the quarterback will force more mistakes and more unfavorable situations that lead to an increase in turnover rate. Some analysts are already calling for defensive regression by the Cowboys. But they also had the 7th-lowest conversion rate of pressures to sacks. That metric will almost certainly revert towards the mean and will likely offset the inevitable turnover regression.

In addition, this defense was anchored by young talent. Defensive performance tends not to be very stable from year to year, but it’s easier to perform at a high level when your team is anchored by young, ascending talent that you can build around. If the Cowboys prioritize bolstering the defense around Parsons while he is still relatively cheap, they could have a top unit for a few years at least. Pressure and coverage is the best way to build a defense in today’s NFL, and they have the talent.

Key Takeaways

When to bet on the Cowboys: Assuming they continue to exert pressure at a high rate, I will look to capitalize when they face an immobile or inexperienced quarterback. The offense has some uncertainty right now but it will be interesting to see whether they work to feature their best players in 2022 (CeeDee Lamb and Tony Pollard).

When to fade the Cowboys: Given that the defense can create turnovers and sacks against bad teams, they can sometimes look better than they really are. If they become overvalued based on high variance, it can be profitable to bet against them when they face a quarterback who can handle the pressure and/or get the ball out quickly.

What to look for in the offseason: The Cowboys have already begun offloading contracts, even trading Amari Cooper. This is not a great start, and if their commitment to Ezekiel Elliott costs them elsewhere it’s tough to project an improvement on offense. If they lose too many pieces (particularly on the offensive line), there could be some serious regression.

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