NFC East Advanced Stat Roundup: Inside the Cowboys EPA, CPOE, success advantages

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Week 5 of the 2021 NFL Season is in the books with the NFC compiling a record 2-2. In the early games, the Washington Football Team fell to the 3-2 New Orleans Saints, 33-22, while the Philadelphia Eagles eeked out a 21-18 win over the Carolina Panthers. The late game saw the Dallas Cowboys take on their divisional rival, New York Giants, in a game that was close through halftime but ended in a 44-20 blowout in favor of the Cowboys.

The Cowboys now enjoy a two-game lead within the division over Washington and Philadelphia and have a three-game cushion over the Giants. With head-to-head victories over the latter two, the race has a clear leader through the first stanza of the season. How much is real and how much is circumstance? The advanced stats give additional insight than records alone.

EPA Definition

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

One such metric is EPA, a formula that takes historical data and applies it to every play to determine if it increases or decreases a team’s expected points given the outcome of that play. Every down and distance has a level of expected points; the likelihood a team will score on that particular drive based on that situation. Therefore EPA measures the shift in expected points as a result of a specific play.

For example, gaining two yards on 2nd-and-20 from your own nine-yard line may be positive yardage, but negative EPA because the loss of down outweighs the gain of minimal yardage.

The EPA calculations in this article come from (nflfastr), (rbsdm.com) and (PFF.com).

Two-headed Monsters

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Three things are certain: death, taxes and Cowboys running the ball at will in 2021. The Cowboys fearsome duo of Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard combined for 35 carries, 185 yards and touchdown on Sunday against the Giants’ defense. Both backs were efficient with the ball in their hands, with each gaining over five yards per carry for the day. Elliott led the way with 110 yards with Pollard adding an additional 75 yards.

Of course, not all volume yardage is built the same, and the Cowboys’ duo are making their yards count.

For the season, both Elliott and Pollard rank in the top five in EPA among qualifying running backs. Elliott ranks in the top five in carries, rushing yards, EPA and top ten in yards per carry. His counterpart, Pollard, ranks number one in yards per carry and EPA.

The other NFC East run games aren’t having as glorious of a time. Washington Football Team’s Antonio Gibson finished in the top 10 in carries and ranks 11th in total rushing yards, but they’ve primarily been bad carries.

Gibson ranked 94th in the league in rushing EPA, at -6.4. In other words, Washington is hurting themselves giving Gibson all of these carries and they’d be a more efficient offense with a different approach than when and where they made those play calls. An obvious explanation is Washington has a backup QB under center in Tyler Heinecke and may be looking to protect him.

The Eagles and Miles Sanders have been even worse. Hopeful for New York, they are getting positive returns out of utilizing Saquon Barkley. One might wonder if the better passing games of the Giants and Dallas are influencing those teams’ ability to run the ball efficiently, while the struggles in D.C. and Philly have the reverse effect.

CPOE Explained

Completion Percentage above Expectation, or CPOE, measures a quarterback’s performance relative to the difficulty of their throws. It’s another metric that attempts to qualify volume stats of the passing game.

A screen pass to a speedy wide receiver that ends up going for 50 yards notches 50 yards on a QB’s ledger, even though the pass isn’t that difficult of a completion. A 30-yard bomb that zips between double coverage is more telling of the thrower’s skill set, even though it goes for 20 less yards.

Completion Probability assigns difficulty to each throw, based not only on down, distance, field position like EPA does, but on other in-game factors calculated by Next Gen Stats. Expected Completion percentage is an average completion probability. The more difficult a QB’s throws, the lower his expected completion percentage and therefore CPOE is how much better a QB is performing than what’s expected based on the throws he is attempting.

Let there be Rayne

Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott is off to a strong start to his 2021 campaign. Already a betting favorite for the NFL Comeback Player of the Year award, he’s now firmly inserted himself in the MVP race as well. With an Expected Points Added (EPA) of .210 per play, Prescott finished in the top 12 of this category. Additionally, he ranks in the top 10 in success rate, completion percentage, expected completion percentage and completion percentage over expected (CPOE).

His CPOE of 6.9 is good for fourth in the league, meaning he’s excelling at what he’s attempting, even though his EPA per play places him outside the top-10 passers in the league.

Success rate measures how often a play gains the necessary yardage to be considered a success. That’s 40% of necessary yardage to move the sticks on first down, 60% on second down, and 100% on third and fourth downs.

Prescott is even stronger there, ranking second in the entire NFL; he keeps the sticks moving.

The other NFC East quarterbacks are all operating at less than 50% success on their throws, ranking in the bottom third of the league. Only the Eagles’ Jalen Hurts is attempting a large degree of difficult passes and only the Giants’ Daniel Jones joins Prescott in the top-half of the league in EPA per play.

Team Offense

Cowboys’ offensive coordinator Kellen Moore has been generating a lot of buzz around the NFL community with his offense ranking second in points per game at 34.0.

As one would anticipate based on that number, the running and passing attacks have been particularly effective this season. Using EPA per play to measure the effectiveness of the offense’s ability to score points, and success rate to measure the team’s ability to gain yardage in respect to down and distance, we are able to determine the overall aptitude of a team’s offense.

The Cowboys offense ranks 5th in EPA per play at .157 points added. Taking it a step further, Dallas is fifth in passing EPA per play at .259 and fourth in rushing EPA per play. Their success rate is a staggering 54.4%, second highest overall in the league.

The Giants rank second in the division and 15th overall in EPA while also finishing 15th and 16th respectively in pass and rush EPA per play. They have struggled on success rate offensively at just 44% which ranks 24th overall.

Washington ranks third in the division and 20th overall in EPA per play at .001. They stand at 23rd in both rush and pass EPA per play but have a success rate of 45.7%, 16th overall.

The Eagles rank last in the division with an EPA per play of -.006, 22nd overall. Their rushing EPA is 10th at -.037 thanks in part to the success of QB Jalen Hurts. They’ve seen a success rate of 45.8%, 14th overall, which gives shows their ability to pick up first downs, however, they’ll need to translate that to scoring as the season progresses.

Team Defense

(AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)

In contrast to offensive EPA, teams are looking for negative numbers on defensive EPA. On offense the objective is to score points above the expected total and on defense to goal is prevent them from reaching the expected points total. As an example, if a team’s expected point total is 25 points and a defense holds them to 20 points, they’d have a -5.0 EPA for the game.

The division overall has been a mixed bag on the defensive side of the ball.
The Cowboys rank in the top 10 in defensive EPA per play (-.035) and defensive-passing EPA per play (-.016) They finished just outside of the top 10 in success rate at 12th overall.

The Eagles are next in line with an overall EPA per play of .008, finishing 12th in that category. Like Dallas, their Passing EPA per play finished in the top 10, at .047. Their rushing EPA per play and overall success rate both place below average.

The Giants narrowly lead Washington in overall EPA with both teams finishing in the bottom 4 overall at .146 per play for New York and .176 per play for Washington. Neither team stand inside the top 20 on passing or rushing EPA per play but both do rank in the top 20 in success rate.

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