This fantasy preview is part of a preseason series by FantasyLabs Editor-in-Chief Matthew Freedman. Other pieces in the series are available on our Fantasy Football Preview Dashboard.
For a decade (2006-15), Tony Romo was the starting quarterback of America’s Team. Despite Romo’s mistaken reputation as someone who couldn’t perform under pressure, the team never had a losing record when Romo had double-digit starts. If he was able to play the supermajority of a season, the Cowboys at a minimum were always in contention to make the playoffs in Week 17. Of course, when Romo was injured the team underperformed, going 6-10 in 2010 and 4-12 in 2015 when Romo missed 10 and 12 games. With Romo breaking a bone in his back in the third game of the 2016 preseason, the Cowboys looked doomed to another year of losing football — and then Dak Prescott went a franchise-best 13-3 and won Offensive Rookie of the Year. For the Cowboys, 2017 is about transitioning to a Romo-less existence and just maybe making it past the divisional round of the postseason.
For a decade — since Romo’s first full season as a starter — Jason Garrett has been on the Cowboys coaching staff, first as the offensive coordinator under (or alongside) head coach Wade Phillips and then as HC after Phillips was fired eight games into the 2010 season. Since Phillips was a defensive-oriented coach — and especially since owner Jerry Jones hired Garrett before he hired Phillips and eventually made Garrett the highest-paid assistant coach in the league — Garrett was allowed to coordinate the offense however he pleased. In his four years (2007-10) as OC, the offense skewed toward the pass and played at a slow pace. On average the Cowboys were 13.5 and 23.5 out of 32 teams in pass/run ratio and neutral pace.
As HC, Garrett struggled in his first few seasons (2011-13), going 8-8 each year and managing always to lose in Week 17 to a divisional opponent when the NFC East title and a playoff spot were at stake:
- 2011: 14-31 loss at New York – Giants win the division at 9-7
- 2012: 18-28 loss at Washington, D.C. – Redskins win the division at 10-6
- 2013: 22-24 loss to Philadelphia – Eagles win the division at 10-6
That Jones had the self-control not to fire Garrett after the 2012 and 2013 campaigns is incredible. On the one hand, keeping Garrett afforded him the time to mature and learn as coach. On the other hand, giving Garrett the opportunity to work his way through three 8-8 seasons might’ve cost the team a legitimate chance to contend for a Super Bowl in Romo’s prime.
In those first three seasons, the offense emphasized the passing game even more than it had previously and operated at an even slower pace: The Cowboys were 5.3 and 24.7 out of 32 teams in pass/run ratio and neutral pace. For his first year in charge, Garrett called his own plays and didn’t have an OC — because micromanaging is for winners. In his second year, Garrett brought on Bill Callahan as the OC and offensive line coach but nevertheless continued to call plays. After another year of questionable in-game decisions and clock management, Garrett was stripped of play-calling duties so he could focus more on (in the words of Jones) “other issues within a game.” As a result, in 2013 Callahan was OC and play-caller.
Again, the early years of Garrett’s tenure as HC were marked by an offense that was top-10 in passing and bottom-10 in pace. In part this dynamic existed because of the defense. In Rob Ryan’s first year (2011) as defensive coordinator he took the unit from 31st to 16th in scoring, but in 2012 the defense was 24th in scoring and 28th in takeaways. As a result, the offense had to pass the ball to maximize its per-play output and also hold the ball as long as possible to minimize the defense’s exposure. After Ryan’s dismissal, old-timer and father of the Tampa Cover 2 defense Monte Kiffin took over as DC in 2013 and former Bears DC Rod Marinelli joined the staff to coach the defensive line. Kiffin’s defense was exposed in epic fashion, finishing dead last in yards allowed. Again, the offense was incentivized to play throw-and-slow football.
In 2014, though, when Marinelli took over as DC and turned the defense into a respectable unit — over the last three years the Cowboys have averaged 12th in points allowed — the offense changed its style of play. In addition to playing even slower (31st, 31st, and 30th since 2014), the Cowboys now feature an extremely run-heavy offense. In 2014, Jones continued to tweak the offensive coaching staff by adding Scott Linehan, who was OC for Nick Saban’s 2005 Dolphins when Garrett was there as the quarterbacks coach. Linehan was given play-calling responsibilities and the fake-sounding title of “Passing Game Coordinator.” Ironically, Linehan called the second-fewest pass plays and the third-most run plays in the league as Callahan returned to coaching the offensive line as the “Running Game Coordinator” and OC in name only. Callahan left the team in 2015, and Linehan was elevated to OC. Even when the team went 4-12 that year without Romo and played much of the season in negative game script, the Cowboys remained a run-heavy team, finishing 10th in run/pass ratio.
And then last year, with the additions of Dak and Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys were the most run-oriented team in the league: First in run/pass ratio and first in number of running plays. For the last three years, in the best of times and the worst of times, with Romo and without him, and regardless of whoever has been the starting running back at the moment . . .
- 2014: DeMarco Murray
- 2015: Darren McFadden and Joseph Randle
- 2016: Zeke
. . . the Cowboys have been the Forrest Gump of football: They may be slow, but they sure can run.
As long as the defense isn’t horrible (and probably even if it is), the offense is likely to employ in 2017 the slow-paced run-heavy style of play to which it’s grown accustomed.
While there hasn’t been much turnover on the offense, there have been some significant changes:
- QB: Dak Prescott
- RB: Ezekiel Elliott –> Elliott/Darren McFadden
- WR: Dez Bryant
- WR: Terrance Williams
- WR: Cole Beasley
- TE: Jason Witten
- LT: Tyron Smith
- LG: Ronald Leary/La’El Collins –> Jonathan Cooper
- C: Travis Frederick
- RG: Zack Martin
- RT: Doug Free –> Collins
Although there have been some injuries and games missed, the offensive line for three straight seasons has consisted of Smith and Free at tackle, Leary and Martin at guard, and Frederick at center, with Collins joining the team in 2015 as a short-term injury fill-in and long-term future starter. That future is now.
Free and Leary aren’t outstanding players, especially in comparison to Smith, Frederick, and Martin, all of whom were All-Pro last year and have been named to the last three Pro Bowls. Free in particular struggled, allowing eight sacks last season, and Leary was ‘only’ Pro Football Focus’ No. 22 guard with his 80.2 overall grade. Free and Leary were important to the line because they provided cohesion and were adequate, but they weren’t stars.
To put this in Pearl Jam terms that almost no one will appreciate: If Smith, Frederick, and Martin are vocalist Eddie Vedder and guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready, and if Collins is bassist Jeff Ament — someone whom everyone (for some reason) thinks is vital to the group — then Free and Leary are two of the random drummers with the band in the ’90s: They maybe seemed important at the time, but their names were forgotten within a year of leaving the band.
Of course, maybe that analogy sucks.
With the loss of Leary and Free the Cowboys have elevated backups Collins and Cooper to the starting lineup, and now they have significantly less depth.
What happens if Collins is bad or suffers an injury? Last year he had a 38.0 PFF grade in three starts — before getting injured. In 2015 he had a 53.4 grade.
What happens if Cooper is bad or suffers an injury? He missed his entire rookie season (2013) for the Cardinals with a broken left fibula. In 2014 he injured his toe and knee in training camp and lost the starting left guard job. He eventually started two games that season but then injured his left wrist. In 2015 he was moved to right guard, where he started nine games before injuring his knee. In 2016 he was traded to the Patriots and expected to start at right guard — and then he was sidelined by a right foot injury in training camp. He lost his job and was released in October. He was picked up by the Browns, who started him for three games and then eventually waived him in December. (The Browns — who needed line help last year — waived Cooper. Think about that.) He was signed by the Cowboys in January 2017 as offensive line depth since they’d scouted and liked him in the 2013 draft, when he was chosen No. 7 overall. Cooper was a talent in college and maybe he can finally stay healthy — but he has just 14 starts in his four-year career and has had sub-55.0 PFF grades for two of his three active seasons. Based on his history, the odds are that one way or another Cooper will not start even the majority of games this year.
What happens if Smith, Frederick, or Martin get hurt? Do the Cowboys have the depth to withstand an injury to one of their three studs?
Just as the Jedi get their strength from the Force, the Cowboys get their power from the offensive line. It’s the backbone of the running game and the protective rib cage of the passing game. If Collins and Cooper find their collegiate forms, this line has a chance to be one of the most dominant units in NFL history. If Collins and Cooper struggle and the line suffers some injuries, the Cowboys might end up a pile of bones.
And I haven’t even mentioned that Zeke (and the rest of the universe) is waiting to learn from the NFL whether and for how long he’ll be suspended for being a likely douche on a number of unrelated occasions. With Zeke out, McFadden will be the lead back. UPDATE (August 11): The NFL has just suspended Zeke for six games. He will likely appeal the suspension.
Defensively, the situation isn’t good:
- DE: Jack Crawford/Demarcus Lawrence/David Irving –> Lawrence/Irving
- DT: Maliek Collins
- DT: Terrell McClain/Cedric Thornton –> Thornton/Stephen Paea
- DE: Tyrone Crawford/Benson Mayowa –> T. Crawford/Taco Charlton
- OLB: Sean Lee
- MLB: Anthony Hitchens –> Hitchens/Jaylon Smith
- OLB: Justin Durant/Damien Wilson –> Durant/Wilson/Kyle Wilber
- CB: Morris Claiborne/Anthony Brown –> Brown
- CB: Brandon Carr –> Nolan Carroll/Chidobe Awuzie
- SCB: Orlando Scandrick
- SS: Barry Church/J.J. Wilcox –> Jeff Heath/Kevon Frazier/Xavier Woods
- FS: Byron Jones/Heath –> Jones
Last year’s unit was fifth in scoring. Jack Crawford is now with the Falcons, Lawrence is recovering from yet another back surgery, and Irving is going to miss the first four games of the season with a suspension for performance-enhancing drugs. McClain is now with the Redskins, Paea is a below-average replacement, Mayowa is dealing with some knee issues, and Charlton (though a promising first-round pick) is just a rookie. Hitchens was subpar against the run last year with just 39 tackles, and Smith is yet to prove that he can play on his damaged knee. And there’s at least a small chance that Wilson won’t be on the team when the season starts: In July he was charged with two counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon — he literally backed his truck into a woman and threatened a man with his rifle — but at least the Cowboys cut Lucky Whitehead, right?
PFF ranks the Cowboys front seven as the NFL’s seventh-worst unit — and the secondary is missing three starters from last year.
What Marinelli has done in his three years as DC is notable, so he deserves the benefit of the doubt — but the Cowboys defense is fairly unknown as it enters the 2017 season. Be sure to keep an eye on our NFL Matchups Dashboard as well as our NFL News feed to see how these units take shape and to track any injury updates.
For all the uncertainty surrounding the defense and offensive line, the team’s skill position players are familiar assets. The chaos of a 16-game season can render projections meaningless, but in general the range of outcomes for these players is known.
Dak Prescott, QB
The year Dak came out of nowhere and looked like the greatest quarterback on the planet — that wasn’t 2016. That was 2014, when Dak as a redshirt junior at Mississippi State opened the season 9-0 and was the favorite to win the Heisman till he lost to Alabama in his 10th game. Slowed for the second half of the campaign by a foot injury, Dak eventually lost his hype, and over the final 17-20 games of his college career he came to be regarded as something of a right-handed Tim Tebow: A poor passer with high character and the ability to run. Some scouting services had Prescott pegged as an undrafted free agent.
While there might’ve been some mechanical quirks with Prescott’s delivery, he wasn’t a poor passer according to the numbers. In his two final seasons at State, Dak completed 64.2 percent of his passes — despite playing in the tough Southeastern Conference — and posted seasons that were almost identical in efficiency:
- 2014: 8.8 adjusted yards per attempt (AY/A), 151.7 QB Rating
- 2015: 8.7, 151.0
Averaging 3,621 yards and 28 touchdowns passing (and eight interceptions) in two 13-game SEC campaigns, Dak had the production to be a top prospect in the 2016 draft — especially with his rushing production: In his 37 games as a starter, he rushed 504 times (including sacks) for 2,403 yards and 37 touchdowns. He was the first-team All-SEC quarterback for two years straight, he exhibited a strong ball velocity of 54 miles per hour at the combine, and he had already earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees while playing football — but, sure, he probably was too risky for any team to draft before the 135th pick.
Here’s a scary thought: If not for Dak’s Kurt Warner-esque luck to have both Romo and Kellen Moore suffer serious injuries during the preseason, the world might never know that Dak was capable of being an NFL-caliber quarterback, much less the greatest rookie passer of all time. But with Romo and Moore out for significant chunks of preseason practices and games, Dak was able to have a lot of repetitions with the first-team offense and take more snaps against live opponents, completing an obscene 78.0 percent of his 50 preseason passes for 454 yards and five touchdowns (to zero interceptions) and adding seven rushes for 53 yards and two more touchdowns.
During the season, Dak set a rookie-record with his 81.5 Total QBR, good for the 11th-best season of all time — one spot ahead of Romo’s wonderfully efficient 2014 campaign (ESPN). Aside from Hall-of-Famer Otto Graham (who attempted only 174 passes as a rookie), Dak’s 8.60 AY/A on 459 passes is an all-time rookie record. His 67.8 percent completion rate is also a rookie record. His 13 wins is tied for a rookie record. His 16 Approximate Value (AV) is tied for third, placing him in a cohort with Cam Newton (19), Robert Griffin III (18), and Russell Wilson (16) as the only rookie quarterbacks ever to surpass the 15 AV threshold (Pro Football Reference). Of course, Newton (126), Griffin (120), and Wilson (94) have the most carries of any rookie quarterbacks in the modern era, and they derived a large portion of their value from their rushing production, collectively averaging 670 yards and 8.3 touchdowns on the ground, whereas Dak had only a 57/282/6 rushing line.
Consider this: A college player known as a great runner and poor passer just had the greatest rookie season of all time by a quarterback — and in comparison to the other great first-year quarterbacks he did relatively little as a runner. Even if Dak regresses as a passer, he’s likely to have more pass and rush attempts this year as the Cowboys experience worse game script and perhaps are without Zeke for some games. And what if Dak regresses some but still proves himself to be a great quarterback? Last year he was 11th in deep-ball completion percentage (39.5) and 10th in completion percentage against pressure (36.0). He could improve upon those numbers. As good as Dak’s performance was last year — he was second with 0.54 fantasy points per dropback and 4.6 air yards per attempt and third with a +20.2 Production Premium (PlayerProfiler) — there’s the real possibility he could be better this year.
Right now Dak has an average draft position (ADP) of 112.7 in DRAFT best ball leagues. He’s a strong pivot play on the quarterbacks being selected two to three rounds ahead of him. I prefer him to several of the quarterbacks highlighted in my piece on the top 100 NFL players. In the props market, Dak has the fifth-highest odds to win the MVP at +1,200. That number seems optimistic — Dak isn’t likely to win MVP if the Cowboys markedly decline — but if you believe in the predictive power of Vegas then you have to think Dak is incredibly undervalued at his ADP.
If we remove his Week 17 outing (a meaningless game in which he played only 15 snaps), last year Dak averaged 19.91 DraftKings points per game (PPG) with an impressive +4.00 Plus/Minus and 80.0 percent Consistency Rating (per our Trends tool). For people who didn’t want to pay up at quarterback, Dak was almost an automatic play in cash games.
This year he’s likely to emerge as more of an option in tournaments, and when the Cowboys were underdogs in 2016 Prescott had a +4.13 Plus/Minus at only 1.6 percent ownership in large-field GPPs. This year FantasyLabs users can review ownership trends across guaranteed prize pools of various buy-in levels with our DFS Ownership Dashboard, which is reason enough to subscribe to FantasyLabs. It’s possible that sharp players will take advantage of the ownership discount Prescott has historically afforded as a dog. Be sure to monitor our Vegas Dashboard to see how the market views the Cowboys each week. If you want to construct Prescott-Dez stacks, do it with our Lineup Builder.
Ezekiel Elliott, RB (UPDATE)
Last year, despite sitting out the last week of the season because the Cowboys had already clinched the No. 1 seed, Zeke led the league with 322 rushes and 1,631 yards on the ground. His league-leading 108.7 rushing yards per game (YPG) surpassed all rookie YPG marks except for one: Eric Dickerson’s 1983 record of 113.0 YPG. (By the way, the next year Dickerson set the all-time single-season rushing record with 2,105 yards, so it is theoretically possible for Zeke to improve.)
In NFL history Zeke is one of only 12 rookies to have 300 carries and 30 receptions: That cohort contains some of the game’s best backs: Dickerson (1983), Marshall Faulk (1994), Curtis Martin (1995), LaDainian Tomlinson (2001), Matt Forte (2008), Edgerrin James (1999), and five other relative no-namers — such as Doug Martin (2012) — all of whom have been to multiple Pro Bowls. On average, the previous 11 backs had 1,544.2 scrimmage yards and 10.6 touchdowns in their sophomore campaigns — and this includes two runners who suffered season-ending injuries and combined to miss 25 games. (The cohort median is 1,660/14). As long as Zeke doesn’t break down, he will almost certainly still finish as a top-10 fantasy back.
In Linehan’s three years as the team’s play-caller, the lead backs have combined to average 21.1 carries and 2.7 receptions per game for 123.8 scrimmage yards, 0.75 touchdowns, and 20.93 DraftKings PPG. Even when the Cowboys went 4-12 in 2015, McFadden was a locked-in RB1 as the starter. Zeke seemingly has a low-end RB1 floor.
But for a guy with a DRAFT ADP of 4.0, a RB1 floor (while good) isn’t great — and there are reasons to be bearish on Zeke. Even though he was the No. 3 fantasy back last year, he wasn’t efficient. At the position, he was only seventh with 0.46 fantasy points per snap and 5.3 yards per carry (YPC) against a base front; 11th with 3.5 YPC against a stacked front; 15th with a +21.0 Production Premium; 20th with 1.3 yards after contact per touch; 22nd with a 5.3 percent breakaway run rate; and 23rd with 0.90 fantasy points per opportunity. Volume is everything for running backs — but what happens if Zeke simply doesn’t get as much volume next year? What happens if the offensive line isn’t as dominant? Or the defense doesn’t allow the Cowboys to have as much positive game script? What happens if Zeke’s body doesn’t hold up well after getting 978 touches over the last three seasons?
And what happens if Zeke is suspended for more than just a couple of games?
Right now Zeke is +350 to finish the season with the most rushing yards in the league. I’m not touching that at all.
UPDATE (August 11): The NFL has just suspended Zeke for six games. He will likely appeal the suspension. His price (understandably) will drop in DRAFT leagues, and he might actually become something of a value. And if Zeke appeals the suspension then he might not even miss any games till 2018. If his ADP settles below the third round, consider investing.
Darren McFadden, RB
If Zeke for some reason misses 12 games or more, DMC will be my choice for the 2017 Comeback Player of the Year (assuming that Keenan Allen plays no more than eight games for the third straight season). His 173.9 DRAFT ADP is beyond reasonable considering McFadden’s upside.
Dez Bryant, WR
From 2011 to 2015, Bryant played 64 games with Romo, averaging 76.1 YPG and 0.77 touchdowns per game (TDPG). In 2016, after Dez returned in Week 8 from a knee injury, he averaged 77.8 YPG and 0.90 TDPG in his 10 full games with Dak (including playoffs), averaging an elite 19.22 DraftKings PPG in that span. He’s missed 10 games in the last two years, but he’s still Dez.
Over the last four years he’s averaged 0.72 targets per game (TPG) inside the 10-yard line. For reference: Antonio Brown has 0.64 TPG inside the 10 in that same span. Dez is discounted at his 20.6 DRAFT ADP. Three words: Stack. With. Dak.
Terrance Williams, WR
Williams isn’t a great player, but he’s not as horrible as people think. It’s not as if he entered the league as a first-rounder. He was selected in the third round of the 2013 draft to be a competent supplementary receiver, and that’s what he’s been. Out of all the wide receivers to enter the league in the last 25 years, the only third-rounders to surpass his 2,791 yards receiving and 20 touchdowns within the first four years of their careers are:
- T.Y. Hilton (2012-15): 4,413/24
- Eric Decker (2010-13): 3,070/33
- Mike Wallace (2009-12): 4,042/32
- Darrell Jackson (2000-03): 3,808/27
- Terrell Owens (1996-99): 3,307/30
- Antonio Freeman (1995-98): 3,706/36
Since Williams entered the league both Romo and Dak have been at their best when throwing the ball to him:
- Romo: 150 targets, 10.2 AY/A
- Dak: 56, 11.4
For comparison: Romo has a 9.2 AY/A on his 294 targets to Dez; Dak, 9.0 on 96.
A boom-or-bust deep threat, Williams doesn’t get the volume of Dez and Beasley, but each season he has some big weeks. Even in a down year, he was ninth among all wide receivers in 2016 with 2.07 fantasy points per targets and sixth with a +26.3 Production Premium. With a DRAFT ADP of 211.9, Williams offers some real value with his volatile production.
Cole Beasley, WR
With the Cowboys playing a ball-control offense and easing Dak into the system, Beasley had a banner year, setting career-high marks with 98 targets, 75 receptions, 833 yards, five touchdowns, and 11.81 DraftKings PPG. Beasley was a strong contributor to the offense with 2.08 yards per route run (PFF) and his elite 76.5 percent catch rate. He was almost unbelievably productive, finishing 16th with a +17.3 Production Premium and seventh — seventh! — with 0.31 fantasy points per snap.
Of course, therein lies the problem with Beasley: He doesn’t play many snaps — and it has little to do with game script. When the Cowboys were 4-12 in 2015, Beasley played all 16 games but was on the field for only 54.8 percent of the team’s offensive snaps. Last year, he played only 56.8 percent of the snaps.
Why does Beasley see the field so little? The Cowboys are a running team. Beasley is small (5’8″ and 175 lbs.) and #notgood in the rushing attack with his 58.0 PFF run-blocking grade. As a result, the team uses the fullback, a second tight end, or just another wide receiver often enough for Beasley to spend more snaps than desired on the sideline. Beasley’s not expensive at his 158.3 DRAFT ADP, but without more snaps he’s unlikely to see the targets he needs to become anything more than a high-floor selection who falls short of being a league winner.
Jason Witten, TE
Mountains may crumble into the sea, but always Witten will be the tight end of the Cowboys. In his 14 years with the franchise he’s caught passes from Quincy Carter, Vinny Testaverde, Drew Henson, Drew Bledsoe, Brad Johnson, Jon Kitna, Stephen McGee, Kyle Orton, Brandon Weeden, Matt Cassel, Kellen Moore — and of course Romo and Prescott. He’s slower than he used to be and older than some grandfathers, but he’s still got it.
And by “it,” I mean “declining usage probably related to his advanced age and the slow pace and run-heavy style of the team’s offense.”
In his three non-rookie seasons before Garrett became OC, Witten was good. He was a Pro-Bowler who averaged 100.3 targets per year for 72.3 receptions, 830.3 yards, and 4.3 touchdowns. With Garrett (and Romo), Witten became an All-Pro. In the OC Garrett years, his target total jumped to an average of 128.5 per season for a 91.3/1,032.3/5.5 stat line. And in the first three HC Garrett years, which were characterized by a pass-happy scheme, Witten did about the same: 125 targets per year and an 87.3/944/5.3 line. He wasn’t quite as good, but he was still one of the best and most consistent tight ends in the league.
Since 2014, though, when Linehan instituted a slow-paced run-heavy system, Witten has been de-emphasized: 96.3 targets per year for a 70/696.3/3.7 line. At the age of 35, Witten is unlikely to do significantly better than that in 2017. Over the last three years he’s averaged just 4.7 targets per season inside the 10-yard line. He’s simply not an offensive priority any more.
Still, Witten’s DRAFT ADP of 135.3 is reasonable, especially considering that he hasn’t missed a game since his rookie season and still plays almost every down, averaging 1,028.3 snaps per year over the last three campaigns. If you can live with a tight end who’s nearing the deathbed, go for it. He’s unlikely to underperform his low expectations.
In the futures market the Cowboys currently have a 2017 win total of 9.5 games with a -125 over and -105 under. They’re also -200 to make the playoffs and +160 not to. Writing for Rotoworld, Warren Sharp gives the Cowboys the eighth-hardest schedule in the league, and Garrett is only 8.83-7.17 on a per-season basis in his six years as HC. That said, it’s possible — and I think probable — that these Cowboys are unlike the three 8-8 teams early in Garrett’s tenure.
With Marinelli overseeing a livable defense and Linehan coordinating a slow and run-focused offense, the Cowboys are 9.67-6.33 (per year) over the last three years — and that includes a 4-12 campaign that is likely unrepresentative because the team’s starting quarterback was injured for 75 percent of the games. If we look only at the 2014-16 contests started by Romo and Dak (excluding Dak’s unrepresentative Week 17 start), the Cowboys are 28-6, which prorates to a 13.2-2.8 season. In both years with a healthy starting quarterback, the Cowboys have made the playoffs. Even if the Cowboys play tough competition and the offensive line and defense decline, they probably still have a good chance of hitting double-digit wins and making the playoffs as long as Dak is able to start. A season with 10-11 wins seems about right.
The Cowboys are currently +1,200 to win the Super Bowl, +600 to win the NFC, and +115 to win the NFC East. In their last two postseason trips, the Cowboys have lost to the Packers in the divisional round in dramatic fashion thanks to a Dez touchdown that was overturned and an 18-point comeback that was for naught. The Packers are +750 to win the Super Bowl and +400 to win the NFC. Over the last three years, the Packers and Cowboys have been comparable when both teams have been healthy. I think it’s hard to say that the Packers are 1.5 times likelier than the Cowboys to win the NFC and 1.6 times likelier to win the Super Bowl.
As for the division, the Cowboys were 6-2 against NFC East opponents in 2014-15 with Romo and 3-2 in 2016 with Dak (excluding the meaningless Week 17 game). With a healthy starting quarterback, the Cowboys have been the best team in the division for the last three years.
One final note: Under Garrett, the Cowboys have a reputation of playing down to their opponents as favorites and up to their opponents as underdogs. This pattern can be seen in the team’s performance against the spread since 2011. If we exclude the almost Romo-less 2015 season, we see that the strategy of betting against the Cowboys as favorites and on them as dogs has resulted in a 49-30-1 record. In particular, the Cowboys are 20-10-0 vs. the line as underdogs. Sharp bettors will likely pay attention to these trends early in the season.
In researching for this piece I consulted Evan Silva’s excellent Cowboys Fantasy Preview at Rotoworld and relied on data from Pro Football Reference, Pro Football Focus, Football Outsiders, Football Perspective, PlayerProfiler, Team Rankings, The Power Rank, NFL.com, and the apps at RotoViz as well as the FantasyLabs Tools and Models.
Ian Hartitz contributed research to this article.