NFL seasons are incredibly difficult to predict even without a global health crisis like the one the world has been facing. There are so many variables in football that attempting to predict an NFL season, while fun, will lead to more misses than hits. Games you think your team wins they drop and games you think they'll lose they find a way to win. In a parity driven league, the margin between good teams and bad teams isn't as wide as it might be in other sports.
While it's difficult to predict, it's that time of year when sites, especially those driven by analytics will run their simulations and release their projections for each team. Pro Football Focus did just that the other day.
After performing simulations of the 2020 NFL season, Pro Football Focus published a piece that looked at the Best- and Worst-Case Scenarios for each NFL team. Technically, as they describe, “these aren't truly best- and worst-case scenarios, but using the 10th and 90th percentiles as points of reference looks at 80% of the most likely outcomes for each team.”
PFF's 10th Percentile Outcome: 6-10
Here's what Ben Linsey of Pro Football Focus had to say.
“How they get there: The defense ─ and the secondary, in particular ─ is unable to slow down opposing passing attacks. It seems hard to believe that the Cowboys' offense will drag the team down, given the talent they've put together on that side of the ball, but defensively there are some questions. Perhaps they move Chidobe Awuzie to safety, leaving rookie Trevon Diggs as the team's top outside cornerback. Diggs is certainly a talented prospect, but last season was his first full year at cornerback with Alabama after switching to the position from wide receiver. After letting Byron Jones walk in free agency, a lack of proven options to turn at the cornerback position could be this team's undoing in 2020.
Ben Linsey, Pro Football Focus
While it's difficult for me to see a scenario in which the Dallas Cowboys go just 6-10 in the 2020 season, the team certainly isn't without its questions as they gear up for training camp at the end of July (hopefully!!!). Namely, as Linsey writes, a lot of those questions are on the defensive side of the ball.
Who starts at outside cornerback opposite Chidobe Awuzie?
Who is the right edge rusher?
Will Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith have bounce-back seasons?
Will a higher blitz rate lead to more splash plays or more big plays?
As we sit here on July 10th, I'm of the mind that the Dallas Cowboys will be fine on defense. Even if they're league average, the offense will be so good that it'll make up for any perceived defensive inadequacies.
Cornerback seems to be the most significant question mark facing this team heading into 2020.
Though we don't know who will start opposite Chidobe Awuzie, the Cowboys have some intriguing options from rookie Trevon Diggs to free-agent signing Daryl Worley. Those are the two likeliest options to be competing for that outside cornerback spot while Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis compete in the slot.
While Awuzie hasn't been a shutdown corner, he's been better than we think. Awuzie may have allowed a lot of receptions, but he's rarely burned at the position, often holding his own in one-on-one coverage. A scheme shift that doesn't let the quarterback sit comfortably in the pocket (more blitzing) combined with a press-man approach should limit some of the perfect throws and catches that Awuzie has allowed throughout his career.
The Cowboys did a lot to attempt to address the loss of Byron Jones. They re-signed Anthony Brown and C.J. Goodwin. They brought in Saivion Smith, Maurice Canady, and Daryl Worley in free agency. Then the Cowboys drafted Trevon Diggs in the second round and Reggie Robinson II in the fourth round. They'll have options. Now, will those options be as good as Byron Jones was during his two years at the position, it seems unlikely, but they don't have to be as good as Jones to be equally effective in Mike Nolan's pressure focused defense.
PFF's 90th Percentile Outcome: 11-5
“How they get there: Dak Prescott puts together another stellar season with one of the league's best offensive lines and a stellar trio of wide receivers in Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and CeeDee Lamb. With Prescott firing on all cylinders with both the passing-game pieces around him and running back Ezekiel Elliott ─ who is coming off a career-high 82.9 rushing grade in 2019 ─ there is no reason why they can't push for the title of best offense in the NFL next season.”
Ben Linsey, Pro Football Focus
I'll admit, it's much easier for me to see this outcome for the Dallas Cowboys due to my generally optimistic view on life and the team. However, everything Linsey points to about the Dallas Cowboys offense is the reason people should be confident about this team. This offense is going to be incredibly explosive and efficient at the same time.
For whatever questions we have about the defense, those questions are pretty quickly overshadowed by the talent they have on the offensive side of the football.
Dak Prescott's career year wasn't a fluke. There might be some regression in the volume stats like passing yards and touchdowns, but his efficiency and deep-ball ability will only continue to improve. Remember when Tony Romo had his best season more than ten years into his career. Prescott has shown that he will improve something in his game each season. From 2018 to 2019, he was a more decisive thrower and worked much better in the pocket, which helped reduce the extremely high number of sacks he took in 2018. His deep ball ability was incredibly inconsistent, especially when throwing to Michael Gallup in 2018, was much improved in 2019, and helped him throw for nearly 5,000 yards in 2019.
The trio of Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and CeeDee Lamb has a chance to be one of the most dominating units in football. Each player can win at every level of the field, and each player can take short passes for long gains due to their physicality and route running. Teams are going to struggle to contain the Cowboys wide receiver trio, which will open up a ton of options in the passing game for tight end Blake Jarwin to find room to run.
The offensive line is still really good despite turning over the center position. A camp battle at left guard should only bring out the best in the victor and help the offensive line. Pro Football Focus had the Dallas Cowboys offensive line ranked third overall heading into the 2020 season.
Even with questions at left guard and center for the Cowboys, they'll still be good enough for Ezekiel Elliott to remain one of the more productive running backs in the NFL. Moving forward, we may see the best and most efficient Ezekiel Elliott that we've ever seen. Gone is Jason Garrett's reliance on 12 and 13 personnel. Hopefully, gone is motioning a wide receiver into the formation to be a blocker. Kellen Moore had the Cowboys using 11 personnel (1 running back, 1 tight end, 3 wide receivers) 67% of the time in 2019 and under Mike McCarthy and with the addition of CeeDee Lamb, that usage rate is about to skyrocket.
In 11 personnel in 2019, the Dallas Cowboys averaged 5.5 yards per carry and had a success rate of 58%. In 12 personnel, they averaged just 4.6 yards per carry with a success rate of 50%. Running more isn't the answer for the Dallas Cowboys. Running smarter is. Running Elliott out of 11 personnel, which is what he did a ton of at Ohio State, with this wide receiver group, is going to allow for more space for him to operate, which will enable him to be more efficient and explosive on his runs.
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Though nothing is guaranteed in the NFL and how we perceive the strength of a team's schedule in July can drastically change for the better or worse once the season gets going. It's incredibly difficult to predict how a team is going to finish, but there's a lot to like about the Dallas Cowboys heading into 2020.
My biggest reason for optimism, which could also be a reason for concern, is the overhaul of the coaching staff. Mike McCarthy's track record of success at every level of his career is a huge reason for my optimism about this team. While I was a Jason Garrett fan, he just didn't have enough juice to get this team over the top. Whether it was bad luck or poor decision making, it just never worked out for Garrett. Mike McCarthy's been to the mountaintop. He's won a Super Bowl. He's also been to the NFC Championship three other times. And we all witnessed the magic his Green Bay Packers teams were able to pull off in the divisional round against the Dallas Cowboys in 2014 and 2016.
In 2014, the Packers were the beneficiaries of a DeMarco Murray fumble and the “Dez Catch.” In 2016, the interior offensive line got away with a blatant hold on David Irving as he pressured Aaron Rodgers, who made an incredible throw, and Jared Cook made an incredible sideline catch that set up Mason Crosby's 51-yard field goal as time expired.
Those are the bounces that never seemed to go the Cowboys way under Jason Garrett. To go deep in the playoffs, you have to get those bounces. Hopefully, some of that Mike McCarthy magic will rub off on the Cowboys, and they can make a deep run.
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Even with an injury to Dak Prescott, I find it incredibly hard to believe that the Cowboys finish the season with a losing record. The one thing that computers can't account for is injuries and COVID-19. If the Cowboys suffer an excessive amount of injuries at key positions or they have their top two quarterbacks out because of positive COVID-19 tests, then they'll struggle to get to 8-8. But if they're relatively healthy, I think the coaching staff and overall talent on offense are enough to carry them to the playoffs.