Aren't Y'all Cowboys from Hollywood?

by Aaron Schatz

Well, our man Ta-Nehisi is back but I did promise that I would post about his beloved Cowboys during my little guest-posting stint, and I didn't quite get to it. I'm never one to leave a promise hanging, or pass on a book promotion opportunity, so let's talk about the 2010 Dallas Cowboys.

The Cowboys probably have the most controversial projection in Football Outsiders Almanac 2010. Our projection system plays the season 10,000 times, assigning different values from a range of possibilities to each of the variables in our projection system. In those 10,000 simulations, the Cowboys ended up with an average of just 7.5 wins. That's a far cry from the Super Bowl contender that most of the media expects in 2010.

Now, part of the problem here is that Football Outsiders has this strange history of being wrong about the Cowboys, more than any other team. I'm not sure why it is. I spent hours this offseason trying to figure out what was going on, and it seemed to be something different each year. Subjectively, I don't personally think the Cowboys really have a 50-50 chance of ending up with a losing record this year. However, the projection system is picking up on a few important reasons why the Cowboys are not quite as good as the conventional wisdom seems to believe.

The most important issue with the Cowboys is that almost everything went right last year, with the exception of field-goal kicking. Young players like Michael Jenkins and Miles Austin took huge steps forward. The team suffered very few injuries to starting players during the regular season. When they did suffer injuries, players got back on the field absurdly quickly, particularly DeMarcus Ware. You simply can't expect for everything to go right again and for the team to improve as well. It could happen, but you can't expect it.

We go into every season expecting a team to have an average number of injuries. That means a team that was very healthy last year is likely to decline, while a team that was very unhealthy last year is likely to improve. Already, the team is having health problems that they didn't have in 2009, with injuries to guys like Marcus Spears, Kyle Kosier, and Marc Colombo.

Those last two names bring us to the second big problem with the Cowboys: The offensive line is old. Doug Free, the new left tackle and the least trustworthy member of the line, is also the only one under the age of 31. Teams with an offensive line that has a median age of 32 or higher have a bad habit of collapsing on offense. There have been seven such teams this past decade, and six declined on offense. That includes such offensive face-plants as the 2006 Seahawks, the 2006 Broncos, and the 2007 Bears. (The seventh team, the 2002 Vikings, improved from slightly below average to average.)

Fans look at all the talented players on offense and think that the Cowboys have to score a ton of points, but with each player you add after a certain point, the marginal increase in scoring is going to get smaller. Having all that talent definitely helps if the Cowboys have a lot of injuries in the "skill positions," but the fact is that they can't get a good rookie year from Dez Bryant and a repeat performance by Miles Austin and give Felix Jones more carries and still use Marion Barber the same amount and fix whatever is wrong with Roy Williams and still get the ball to Jason Witten. There just aren't enough plays to go around. They need a backup interior lineman right now more than they need third-string running back Tashard Choice, even though Choice is extremely talented and could start for maybe half the teams in the NFL.

On defense, the Cowboys have a lot of talented players, but some holes also, with problems at safety and questions about the depth on the defensive line.

Finally, the Cowboys are in the best division in the league. Right now, in the NFC West, they would be favorites. However, the Eagles are going to be good again this year unless Kevin Kolb totally self-destructs. The Giants should be better, with their defense and running game likely to rebound from last year's declines. The Redskins should be much better -- they were one of the league's least healthy teams in 2009, and they had bad luck in close games. On top of that, they improved both their quarterback and their head coach. The Redskins will not be running any swinging gate plays this year.

Do you want to know what won't cost the Cowboys a playoff appearance this year? Tony Romo won't cost them a playoff appearance. All the whining about his Hollywood moves and his girlfriends and vacations and whatnot is complete nonsense. He's a fine quarterback. Wade Phillips won't cost them a playoff appearance either. I think it is safe to say that most FO writers have a much higher opinion of Phillips' coaching abilities than we did before he took over in Dallas.

Anyway, I think the reality probably puts the Cowboys somewhere between what the conventional wisdom says and what my spreadsheets say. I expect a 9-7 or 10-6 season that either snags a wild card or barely misses the playoffs in an NFC that is packed with teams that should go somewhere between 8-8 and 10-6. The AFC has much more separation between the good and bad teams than the NFC does.

With that, my time here is done. I would like to remind folks that Football Outsiders Almanac 2010 is 600 sweet, sweet pages of NFL and college previews, and you can buy it here for $12 (PDF version) or $22 (printed version). Football fans can read my thoughts at Football Outsiders all season long. Thanks for the chance to promote myself, Ta-Nehisi.