Looking at the Cowboys’ defense in 2020, it’s clear there’s nowhere to go but to ride. The ‘bend, don’t break’ defensive philosophy fans had grown accustomed to under Rod Marinelli quickly came to an end. Not only did the defense break, it was a historically bad season. With 2020 in the rearview mirror, which we hope will soon be forgotten, there is hope for 2021.
The good news for Cowboys fans is that the defense doesn’t have to be perfect in the coming season. An average defensive performance would almost certainly translate into a playoff berth for the Cowboys, assuming the offense is at the expected level. But how good does our defense have to be to regain control of NFC East?
In its most basic form, the team that scores more points than it allows will win the game. This simple notion has resulted in data scientist formulas that predict the expected victories of a team, using points scored and points awarded. Applying that to the 2021 Dallas Cowboys should give fans a better idea of the level of defense needed to qualify for the playoffs.
When Dak Prescott was injured, the Cowboys averaged 32.6 points per game, placing them third in the NFL by that measure. Assuming this pace was unsustainable, reducing Dallas’ ppg to 28.6 in 2021 is a more conservative estimate. This projection is based on Pro Football Focus ranking the Cowboys as the ninth best offense for the coming season, which would have been just under 29 points per game in 2020. Given that point production, the defense does need than to improve slightly.
A quick note, paying attention to the extremes on either side of the chart becomes misleading. A team will almost always be estimated to win more than one game and less than 17 games. This is part of the reason why Vegas will never set the win total for a team at these extremes. While performance in close games and luck can push a team to these totals, this is rarely expected to happen.
In 2020, the Dallas defense allowed 29.6 points per game. This means that if the defense doesn’t improve at all, we should expect between 8 and 9 wins in 2021. However, with a whole offseason devoted to trying to fix the defensive issues of 2020, what happens? there if there is an improvement on this side of the ball?
If the Cowboys’ defense is just average in 2021, allowing up 23 points per game, the team will win about 11 games. It’s not a prediction of our final record, but it does prove that the defense doesn’t have to be top notch for the Cowboys to advance to the playoffs.
While an average league defense would require drastic changes, allowing just under 26 points per game would likely result in ten wins. Between Dan Quinn’s leadership, Micah Parsons impressive in preseason, and various free agent acquisitions, this result is achievable.
Vegas currently has the Cowboys who have won nine games. Which means bettors expect either our offense to not be as successful under Dak as in 2020, or the defense to have not improved at all. Fans who think both of these statements are wrong should be comfortable with a 10-11 win prediction.
Is a super bowl in the cards? Probably not. 87% of all Super Bowl winners had a Top 10 defense and even the most optimistic Cowboys fans wouldn’t project this kind of improvement, but assume this is a likely playoff team is more reasonable.
The above figures are only expected wins considering the points for and the points against. If the Cowboys are lucky in close games, thirteen wins are possible. But since luck has been scarce over the past four years, fans shouldn’t count on it. This logic also implies that if Dallas consistently loses in close games, the team could finish as low as 6-11.
Obviously, there are limits to such a study. That doesn’t take into account luck in close games, injuries or the strength of the schedule. It also depends on the assumption that the Cowboys offense will be in the top 10 in the NFL. Any decrease in points scored would therefore require further improvement in defense.
Ultimately, we don’t know what 2021 will hold for the Dallas Cowboys. But we know that while offense can produce anywhere near the level of the first five weeks of last year, defense doesn’t have to be stellar. A return to the playoffs would simply require mediocrity from Dan Quinn’s squad.
This season is built on defensive progress. Even a slight correction on this side of the ball would be synonymous with success. It is perhaps illusory to assume that the defense can revert to the “bend without breaking” method it has prescribed for years. But a slight increase in performance from 2020 would go a long way in producing wins. With two weeks out of the season, all we can do is sit down and hope Dan Quinn has the defense ready to play.