The last two weeks have been insane for sports fans.
Major League Baseball had its Opening Day, the NCAA Tournament came to a dramatic close, The Masters happened, Kobe Bryant retired with an epic swan song, the Golden State Warriors accomplished the greatest regular season in NBA History, the NHL Playoffs are happening, and the NBA Playoffs are about to tip off.
In the middle of all of that... the NFL still managed to make itself relevant.
Never mind the fact that the Los Angeles Rams traded with the Tennessee Titans for the right to the First Overall Pick (the history of which I wrote about earlier this week here at Inside The Star), a trade which can benefit the Cowboys, I'm talking about the release of the 2016 NFL Schedule.
Think about that for a second. In the midst of all the greatness happening across the other major American sports, the significance of the release of the NFL schedule managed to be among them. The schedule! This is literally just dates on a piece of paper! The NFL is king.
All 256 games of the 2016 NFL season are now set and ready to get going. All we have to do is put up with the NFL Draft, OTAs, offseason waiting, Training Camp, and Preseason! Hooray!
When we finally get to the light at the end of that long tunnel our great big Inside The Star family will have arrived at the Dallas Cowboys 2016 Season, and specifically the 2016 Dallas Cowboys Schedule. Now that we know it we can start looking forward to it, right?
We'll have you covered with Game Previews here at Inside The Star sooner rather than later, but today we're here for a different reason. Before all of this schedule release excitement got underway, I predicted the 2016 Dallas Cowboys Schedule for you here at Inside The Star. I managed to get four games right, 25% for the math fans, and nailed the notion that the Cowboys would play on Thursday Night Football following their Thanksgiving date against the Redskins.
That's why we're here today - to analyze the aspects of the schedule, not the games themselves. Let's begin.
Cowboys-Giants Week 1... Again?
There were several trends in terms of the Dallas Cowboys schedules dating back as far as the NFL's realignment in 2002 that I factored into my prediction.
Dallas has opened up at home just five times since 2002, three of those contests coming against the Giants, but has kicked off in their own backyard each of the last three seasons. Considering that two of the last three openers have been at home to the Giants, Week 1 of the schedule is quite a chin-scratcher. This will mark the fourth out of fifth season that the Cowboys face the Giants in the season opener.
Cowboys-Giants is a big ratings draw for the NFL, and it's becoming quite the tradition for it to be Week 1. The NFL somewhat spared the country from the same Sunday Night Football game to start the season for the third time in four years when they put this at the three o'clock window. For what it's worth the last time the Cowboys didn't open on Primetime was in 2014 when they got blasted by the 49ers. That season worked out so I'd say this bodes well.
Two Division Games Out The Gate
Since the 2002 realignment the Dallas Cowboys have only started with two division games once, and that was in 2015.
The Cowboys went 2-0 in those 2015 games, but lost both Dez Bryant and Tony Romo so were unable to fully capitalize on the advantage that an early lead like that would provide a team; however, it's not hard to ponder on how big of a leg up that can be to a team.
New York and Washington are both very winnable games for the 2016 Cowboys (providing there is full health... and even then the unhealthy Cowboys almost beat the Giants and did beat Washington). The Cowboys have started off a season 2-0 three times in the Tony Romo era (2007, 2008, & 2015) so it's certainly doable. Doing it in 2016 would poetically put the Cowboys at the point where their 2015 season fell apart... a 2-0 overall/division record.
Week 5 AFC Opponent At Home (Cincinnati Bengals)
Seven out of the last nine seasons the Cowboys have faced an AFC Team in Week 5. Five of those have been at home, three of them coming in each of the last three seasons.
This one was very predictable and the NFL actually slotted the Bengals in the exact same week as when they last traveled to play the Cowboys per the rotation in 2008, only that game was at Texas Stadium. We saw this one coming a mile away.
5 Primetime Games
The NFL has a maximum number of times that a team can appear on primetime - that amount is five. For the twelfth consecutive year, the Dallas Cowboys appear on primetime the maximum allowable amount.
The Cowboys are the NFL's cash cow. People love them. People hate them. Regardless of how people feel about America's Team... they care about America's Team one way or another.
6 "Big Stage" Games
If you follow me on Twitter, then you already know about this little nugget of information.
Yes, the Dallas Cowboys have five primetime games. That's awesome. And its indicative that they are indeed still, and will always be, America's Team. But there's more to this puzzle.
A standard NFL Sunday includes around ten games at noon. This is the boring slot for teams to be put in. Why is it boring? ...there are around ten games going on. The NFL puts its least marketable teams in this window because they can't carry a big stage on their own. Think of each window of games as a television show. The NFL puts all the bad actors together so that there's at least a lot going on. The good actors get their own shows (bigger stages).
The best slot that isn't primetime is the three o'clock window of Sunday games. Typically there are three or four games going on so there is less competition for viewers. This is where you see FOX's traditional America's Game of the Week with Troy and Buck and CBS's top crew with Nantz and Simms. This is the big show.
So Cowboys have 5 games where they'll be the only one on, 4 games where they'll share stage with 2, and 2 games where they'll share with 3.
The Cowboys are on primetime five times which leaves 11 other games on the schedule. They are in the three o'clock window six of those games. Four of those they are one of three games and two of those they are one of four games. That's as close to primetime as you can get. That means that the Cowboys will play in the "boring" slot only five times. The Eagles play in the "boring" slot ten times, that'll put a smile on your face!
Thursday Night Football Following Thanksgiving Against The Vikings
This was a big point in my schedule prediction.
Each team gets the "luxury" of playing on TNF. As the Cowboys already play on Thanksgiving Thursday and considering that the NFL has 18 "Thursday Night Football" games that can only happen in a time span of 14 weeks, they result to some weird stuff like playing some on Saturdays. That's a whole different beast.
The NFL won't make the Cowboys, or Lions for that matter, play a TNF game early in the season and then do it again on Thanksgiving. It's unfair to put them through that short week twice.
This is why I predicted that the Cowboys would play on TNF following Thanksgiving. This allows the Cowboys to still have a full week of rest after Thanksgiving and doesn't compromise their rest routine. This happened to the Cowboys in 2014 when they traveled to Chicago after a Turkey Day showdown against the Eagles.
December 11th On Sunday Night Football Against The Giants
In the rich history between the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants, they have only played each other on December 11th once.
That fateful day was on December 11th, 2011 and the game was on NBC's Sunday Night Football, and it was a rough one for Cowboys Nation. Jason Pierre-Paul blocked a Dan Bailey Field Goal and the Giant Win served as a springboard for New York's Super Bowl XLVI Championship run.
Hopefully that history doesn't repeat itself five years later as the Cowboys and Giants will tango on December 11th under the bright lights of Sunday Night Football once more. This game will be in New York and the last time the Cowboys played there on SNF Jason Pierre-Paul got blocked by Tyron Smith twice as Tony Romo threw the game-winning touchdown to Dez Bryant.
Monday Night Football Finale
No NFL season would be complete without the Dun-Dun-Dun-Dun of Monday Night Football accompanying America's Team.
This season Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden will be fresh off of Christmas when they call the Cowboys and Lions matchup on December 26th. The last time that the Cowboys and Lions squared off at AT&T Stadium was during a 2014 Wild Card Playoff Game, which the Cowboys won in epic fashion.
The NFL hasn't typically given the MNF gang that great of a game lineup, but this one has potential to be special. Of course, the Cowboys will hope to have clinched the NFC East by this point in the season so maybe that's the NFL's way of setting up the ultimate tease.
Thanksgiving Kicks Off Primetime Ride
You can see from the last few points that everything from Thanksgiving on is essentially primetime.
The Thanksgiving Game by definition isn't primetime as it happens at three o'clock, but it's closer than anything else. What's interesting is that 3/5 of the Cowboys' games after Thanksgiving are all in primetime.
This sets the Cowboys up to be in the spotlight during the December days that really matter. If the Cowboys, and subsequently the Eagles, make them matter enough then Dallas could actually find itself with an extra primetime game if their season finale gets flexed to Sunday Night Football.
Here lies more proof not only that the Cowboys are and will always be America's Team, but that the NFL expects them to be good in 2016. There's an awful lot of faith put into a team that has 60% of its final five games in primetime.
Cowboys Sign WR Devin Smith, Former 2nd-Round Pick
The Dallas Cowboys have reportedly signed Receiver Devin Smith, previously with the New York Jets, to a futures contract. Smith was a 2nd-round pick, 37th overall, in the 2015 NFL Draft.
Before going pro, Devin was a college teammate of current Cowboys Ezekiel Elliott, Rod Smith, and Noah Brown. They were all members of the 2014 Ohio State Buckeyes team that won the National Championship.
Smith's agent, Jason Bernstein, tweeting the following earlier today:
Congrats to WR Devin Smith @dsmithosu for signing with the #DallasCowboys! Welcome back. https://t.co/hCMYoE8fEh
Thus far, Smith's NFL career has been marred by injuries. He has suffered two ACL tears in the same knee and only been able to appear in 14 games. He was waived by the Jets last summer and was not with any team last season.
Overall, the 2015 class of receivers has been disappointing. Amari Cooper has been a star and other later-round picks like Tyler Lockett, Stefon Diggs, and Jamison Crowder have been good. But the other big names of the class, such as Kevin White, Breshad Perriman, and DeVante Parker, have not lived up to the hype.
The Cowboys are known for trying to reclaim players who once had high draft status and bad starts to their careers. They are clearly hoping to cash in on Smith's previously perceived potential, which had him projected as a possible first-round talent at one time.
For both Devin and Dallas' sake, we hope it's a success!
DeMarcus Lawrence Named Top Free Agent Of The 2019 Class
Much has been made about the Dallas Cowboys 2019 free agent class. Dallas has a ton of cap space moving forward, but they are going to "have" to pay many of the key players on their roster over the next two offseasons in order to keep their young core together.
Of course, when you're drafting, that's the goal. To draft so well that when your own players become free agents, you go ahead and pay them to keep them around, rather than overpay on the free agent market for external players.
One of the major pieces the Cowboys will have to retain this offseason is defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence. And while Cowboys Nation often thinks of Lawrence as underrated around the league, the NFL has caught onto his importance as he enters free agency this Spring.
ESPN.com ranked their top 10 free agents for 2019, with DeMarcus Lawrence clocking in at number one, over elite players like Jadeveon Clowney and Le'Veon Bell.
ESPN's top 10 free agents for 2019 and what Le'Veon Bell should be looking to command based on previous measures. https://t.co/aJ7H1n001t
DeMarcus Lawrence is going to command big time money, likely even Khalil Mack-type money. But the fact of the matter is that he has earned it. Lawrence has been the heart and soul of the Cowboys defensive line the last two seasons, and the most consistent edge player on the team as well.
Not only has he been an effective pass rusher, but DeMarcus Lawrence also plays with a relentless motor against the run that can sometimes be rare to find in those premier pass rushers. He really is a jack of all trades at defensive end, and should be priority number one for the Cowboys this offseason.
Thankfully, I can't imagine the Cowboys not retaining DeMarcus Lawrence and extending him in the coming months.
When it Mattered Most, Cowboys Offensive Line Protected Dak Prescott
Throughout the 2018 NFL season, one of the major story lines surrounding the Dallas Cowboys was how frequently Dak Prescott was taking sacks. It's an area that the Cowboys will have to look at in the offseason to better protect their franchise quarterback moving forward. In the playoffs, however, Dak Prescott and the offensive line were much better at keeping their prized possession upright than they were in the regular season.
In the regular season, Dak Prescott was sacked 56 times for an average of 3.5 times a game. There was only one game where he wasn't sacked at all, way back in week two against the New York Giants. Four times this season, the Cowboys' quarterback was sacked five or more times. The New Orleans Saints got him for a season high seven times.
According to Pro Football Focus, Dak was "kept clean" -- not pressured -- on 63% of his drop backs during the regular season, which ranked 25th in the NFL. When kept clean, Prescott completed 74.1% of his passes, which was good for 5th in the NFL during the regular season. He was under pressure 37% of the time, which was the sixth highest rate in the NFL and his completion percentage dropped to 52.6%, still good for 10th in the NFL. It was better than Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes, Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, and Baker Mayfield.
During the playoffs, Prescott's "kept clean" percentage rose from 63% to 68% and he was only sacked once in each game. The one sack against the Los Angeles Rams probably shouldn't have been called a sack as the referee blew the whistle because Prescott was "in the grasp"...
...of his offensive lineman.
During the playoffs, the Cowboys offensive line kept the pressure off of Prescott at a better rate, allowing him to be pressured on only 31.9% of his drop backs. Meaning he was kept clean at an improved rate from the regular season at 68.1% of his drop backs. This while playing against two teams that are really good at rushing the passer. The Los Angeles Rams and the Seattle Seahawks both finished in the top half of the league in sacks this season and feature players like Aaron Donald, Jarran Reed, and Frank Clark who all had double-digit sacks.
As we know, pressure rates and sacks aren't all completely on the offensive line. The quarterback, wide receivers, and the play calling all factor in, but the Cowboys are trending in the right direction with their pass protection. A full offseason for Connor Williams in the Dallas Cowboys strength and conditioning program, better health for Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, and -- fingers crossed -- Travis Frederick, should all help the offensive line play at a higher level heading into the 2019 season.
It can't be overstated how important it will be to get Travis Frederick back into the fold this season. Joe Looney was good, and that might be overstating it a bit. He was not noticeable on most plays during the season, but getting your All-Pro center back will tremendously help the offense in every facet of the game. Frederick's one of the smarter players in the NFL, who helps everyone on the offense to see the blitzes and calls out the protections. Both his mental and physical ability will be a welcomed site when the Cowboys begin practicing in the offseason.
With another year of growth for the quarterback and for the young pieces along the offensive line, and with a full offseason for Dak Prescott to grow with Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and Blake Jarwin, the Cowboys should be better next season at keeping the quarterback clean.
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