Turnovers are a pretty luck-dependent stat. It doesn’t matter how great your cornerbacks can cover opposing receivers or how hard your middle linebackers can hit. Most of the time, turnovers are nothing more than being in the right place at the right time or having a series of fortunate events fall into your lap. In 2021, the Dallas Cowboys’ defense benefitted massively from the number of turnovers they forced.
The Cowboys led the league in both interceptions (26) and total turnovers (34). They were also tied for the NFL lead in turnover differential (+14). That’s great! Most of the time, teams near the top of the turnover differential leaderboards tend to see continued success from season to season. Whether it be because of a quarterback with an uncanny ability to take care of the football, or because of a suffocating defense with great ball awareness, teams that high up the leaderboards tend to do well the following season.
In 2020, the Titans led in that category. They were the AFC’s No. 1 seed last year. In 2019, it was the Patriots. They’re an exception, because, y’know, they lost someone kind of important the following season. In 2018, it was the Seahawks who were great in 2019, one of the best teams in the league, but unfortunately were in the same division as the eventual NFC champion San Francisco 49ers. You get the idea. This Cowboys team is different though, and I’m not saying this because of the loss of Amari Cooper and the injury to Michael Gallup. Those are minuscule losses in terms of turnover differential. The issue is that unlike all those other teams, the Cowboys’ success came from turnovers.
In 2021, Dallas led the league in EPA from turnovers at an astonishing -166.9908. That’s the ninth-most in the past 10 years, and it’s unsustainable.
Over the past eight years, only six teams to rank in the top-3 for yearly EPA off turnovers wound up beating their total EPA/play the following year, and only four already had a negative defensive EPA/play to begin with. Of the 18 that got worse, only eight regressed by fewer than 0.05 points per play. Maybe the Cowboys could break that mold, but I wouldn’t bet against those odds.
Basically, the Cowboys would have to rely on getting all those interceptions again in order to be as solid a defensive team as they were last year. Given the volatility of their cornerbacks, which has been well-documented, it’s hard to imagine a similar defensive EPA at all if their turnovers are halved, which is somewhat likely. Since 2017, there hasn’t been a single player to lead the NFL in interceptions and record more than half of their total the following year. The Chargers’ Casey Hayward was the last person to do so when he recorded seven interceptions in 2016 and then four in 2017, but none since, and that was still three INTs fewer than the previous year.
Of course, the holes in the secondary could be patched up with an improved pass rush. While the Cowboys already have an effective pass rush, finishing fourth in pressure rate and seventh in hurry rate in 2021, they didn’t do much to improve in that department this offseason. Sure, they used a second-round pick on Mississippi edge Sam Williams, but he’s still behind Dorance Armstrong on the Cowboys’ depth chart, and I don’t see that changing in the near future. Basically, the Cowboys are bringing practically the same defensive unit to the field this year, and after a year of film on the team, it’s only natural to expect regression in the pass rush department now that Micah Parsons can be broken down in film rooms.
That’s not me saying Parsons won’t be elite next year. That would be ridiculous, but we shouldn’t expect the same incredible numbers he put up in his rookie season. Not to mention, Randy Gregory is gone, and he posted an 84.4 pass rush grade from PFF last year.
I know I’m not making a bold take by predicting that the Cowboys won’t be as good this year, so I’ll take it a step further. The Cowboys will not be anywhere as good as the Philadelphia Eagles in 2022, and the Eagles will have the division wrapped up by Week 14. That’s my prediction, and I’m sticking to it.