Against the odds, Cowboys gambling defense can maintain excellence

When Mike McCarthy addressed reporters at the NFL combine he broached a number of topics. One of which was his plan to use his offense to facilitate his defense.

Seeing the defense as the strength of the team, he preached winning above efficiency rankings, highlighting a natural disconnect between an offensive coordinator calling plays and head coach calling plays.

“Kellen wants to light the scoreboard up…,” McCarthy said. “Being a head coach and being a play caller, you’re a little more in tune with (everything). I don’t desire to be the No. 1 offense in the league. I want to be the No. 1 team in the league with the number of wins and a championship.”

Coordinators generally call plays to have the best possible success on their side of the ball. They are naturally less concerned about their counterparts and willing to deal with a few valleys as long as the peaks make up for it.

McCarthy sounded less inclined to suffer through a valley if it meant putting his defense in a bad spot: Said McCarthy, “If we gotta give up some production and take care of the ball better to get that, then that’s what we’ll do, because we have a really good defense.”

Yet this defensive-minded strategy flies in the face of historical trends and puts a lot of faith in one of the game’s more unstable facets.

Complementary football is more than just the running game supporting the passing game. It can also mean the offense supports the defense (or vice versa). So the idea of applying a big picture perspective to the Cowboys in 2023 isn’t absurd, even if it’s a potentially dangerous attitude to carry.

For instance: If an aggressive pass, which becomes a turnover, results in -3.5 expected points added (EPA), it puts the defense in a tough spot and likely hurts the team. But if that same aggressive nature created +7.75 EPA on other drives, it offers the team a net gain of +4.25 EPA.

In other words, the peaks of the aggressiveness make up for the valleys. A conservative attack that avoids the valleys but also gives up all the peaks could result in a final EPA lower than that of the aggressive attack.

It’s understandable McCarthy feels comfortable leaning on Dan Quinn’s defensive unit. Over the past two seasons, Quinn has turned the Cowboys defense into an elite group, ranking second in DVOA twice and leading the NFL in turnovers in both campaigns.

It’s not breaking news to say some things in the NFL carry over year to year better than others. Interceptions are notorious fickle beasts that fluctuate greatly each season, regardless of individual performance. On the flip side, passing yards are extremely stable, with top passers often repeating their performances year in and year out.

Team defense is squarely located on the unstable side of the scale.

Football Outsiders, amongst others, have studied the stability of defense over the years and found that side of the ball to be largely unstable. Defenses that rely on turnovers and big plays are especially unstable.

As opposed to offensive DVOA, which tends to be the most stable year to year, defensive DVOA (and other defensive stats) can fluctuate wildly. The idea that McCarthy wants to hitch his wagon to an unstable element such as team defense is undoubtedly risky, even with Quinn returning to lead the unit.

It’s not the first time the Cowboys have put their faith in the defense and defied the odds. Last season many questioned whether Dallas could repeat their stellar performance from 2021. The Cowboys defense led the NFL in turnovers that first year under Quinn and most everyone (except Cowboys Wire) seemed to think it couldn’t be repeated.  Alas, it was repeated. With 33 turnovers in 2022, Dallas once again led the NFL.

A person can win the lottery and retire. It happens. But that doesn’t make it a sound retirement strategy. It’s against the odds and smart planners try to play the odds, not buck the odds.

While the odds of winning the lottery are far slimmer than the odds of repeating dominant defensive performances, the point remains: Banking on the most unstable side of the ball is a dangerous battle plan.

Working in the Cowboys’ favor is the age of the individual defensive players, stability in the coaching ranks, and the number of hits on opposing quarterbacks.

With the exception of DeMarcus Lawrence, Dallas’ top defensive players are ascending talents. Individually, they are expected to improve. Quinn also returns as coordinator, adding stability to their individual development while building on the overall understanding of scheme.

Something Josh Hermsmeyer points to as the lone piece of stability in an otherwise unstable side of the ball, is hits on opposing quarterbacks. He found teams that make contact with the passer see extremely stable pass-rushing results year to year.

With 54 hits to match their 54 sacks, the Cowboys were top-10 in this particular stable statistic. A top-five finish would have been more comforting but staying in the top-10 indicates a major change in 2023 is unlikely.

Teams don’t post back to back elite seasons on defense just like they don’t lead the NFL in turnovers twice in a row. Dallas did both. Can they continue to buck the odds a third season?

They seem to think so.

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Story originally appeared on Cowboys Wire