Analysis: The Problem With The Cowboys

Dallas Cowboys v Minnesota Vikings

After an abysmal start, the Dallas Cowboys fired head coach Wade Phillips. Jeff Gross/Getty hide caption

itoggle caption Jeff Gross/Getty

Wade Phillips was fired as coach of the Dallas Cowboys because his team was really talented but their record was really bad. That’s a simple statement — and a true statement — but it still bears some examination.

First of all, lets look at the assumption that the Dallas roster is filled with skilled players. Scouts Inc. grades every player in the NFL on a 0-100 system with players scoring more than 90 being deemed "elite," a score of 80-89 meaning a player is "outstanding" and a score in the 70s meaning a player is a "good starter."

The Cowboys had 18 players with a score over 70. This means a majority of their offense and defense was stocked with players who were at least good. Seven Cowboys were deemed "outstanding."

Compare this with the NFL's "final 4" last year. The Cowboys have more outstanding players than the Saints, Colts, Vikings and Jets. They also have more "good" players than all those teams except the Vikings, who were deeper in the realm of outstanding players.

All of this just affirms the notion that the Cowboys have plenty of talent. The distribution of their talent might lead to some misperceptions, however. Their best player is DeMarcus Ware, sacker of quarterbacks, a skill that leads to notoriety. Other great players are Tony Romo, Miles Austin and Jason Witten, who are in the high-profile positions of pass thrower and pass catcher. What this means is that the Cowboys are strongest at the positions that are best known to the football-watching public.

At other more mundane but no less important positions like, oh, the entire offensive line, the Cowboys are a below-average team. A deep franchise like the Pittsburgh Steelers is stocked with great players at all levels of their defense, which makes for a more solid team. In addition, one of the Cowboys' best players, cornerback Mike Jenkins, is having a terrible year. But this may be more of an indictment of coaching than an exculpation.

Next, let's look at their record and ask why it was so bad. In the NFL, the team that gains the most yards in a given game usually wins. The Cowboys were doing this consistently to start the season. In fact, in their first five games, they outgained their opponents by more than 100 yards in all their losses (and weirdly only had an edge of 45 yards in their one victory). Their problem was an excessive number of penalties, plus poor tactical decisions. (Again, reflective of coaching.) In their last few losses, which is to say after QB Romo was injured, the Cowboys lost more conventionally, giving up more yards than they gained and picking up fewer first downs than their opponents. Still, Dallas is a 1-7 team that has actually outgained its opponents on the year. Pretty shocking. The culprit clearly was coaching, but the question still remains — what’s to gain by firing the coach?

History doesn't tell us much.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said repeatedly that he wouldn't fire a coach midseason because he studied history and found that such a move rarely works. If Jones had that sort of spot-on analysis for all his personnel decisions his team would probably be better than 1-7. A look at the past decade of in-season firings and resignations reveals exactly two examples of an interim coach with a winning record. One was Mike Singletary, who posted a 5-4 record after taking over for Mike Nolan in San Francisco two years ago.  And the other winning interim coach?  That would be Wade Phillips, who was 2-1 as head coach for the last three games of the Atlanta Falcons' 2003 season.

Mike Pesca covers sports for NPR.

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