7.5 wins for Cowboys? FB Outsiders explains

The annual Football Outsiders Almanac is a must-read for educated NFL fans. It’s hundreds of pages of analysis and numbers crunching that reaches far beyond the routine stats.

That doesn’t mean Cowboys fans will like the 2010 edition.

Football Outsiders projects the Cowboys to have 7.5 wins this season. Put those parade plans in Arlington on hold, huh?

Football Outsiders managing editor Bill Barnwell will explain how the heck the defending NFC East champions could be considered a below-average bunch and offer his take on four other pertinent Cowboys questions.

A lot of folks see the Cowboys as Super Bowl contenders. Football Outsiders projects them to be a sub-.500 team. Do your statistical formulas have an anti-Cowboys bias or what?

Barnwell: Ha. I feel like we're back in 2008 all over again.

I think that there are a few things our prediction system suggests about the Cowboys that are worth discussing.

1) They're unlikely to be this healthy from year to year. This is something we brought up in 2008 that ended up being pretty key to Dallas's system. Then, Tony Romo got hurt. Last year, DeMarcus Ware had that really nasty sprained neck, but the Cowboys doctors were able to amazingly get him back on the field six days later for the Saturday night game against the Saints that he just took over. I'm happy Ware was able to come back so quickly -- it's never good to see someone down on the field the way he was -- but the margin of error there is pretty slim. The Cowboys are a top-heavy team, and avoiding injuries to their stars is a dance they have to do each year.

2) They have an extremely old offensive line, even with the arrival of Doug Free at left tackle. Old offensive lines like that tend to collapse, with a combination of injury and decline in performance. Free, although he's looked good in training camp, is also a question mark. (Then again, so was Flozell Adams.)

3) We're expecting the Redskins and Giants to play better in 2010, especially Washington. That makes Dallas's schedule more difficult.

There are some positive factors for Dallas as well; namely, their third-down defense was miserable last year (25th in the league in DVOA, as opposed to fifth on first down and 15th on second down), and that's a classic indicator of something that will improve in the subsequent season.

We've got the Cowboys down for 7.5 wins. I anecdotally think that's a little low, but I think the NFC East comes down to who stays healthiest and who wins those division games. That can come down to a fumble recovery at the right time.

Football Outsiders saw Miles Austin coming. Well, sort of: He was No. 1 last year on your list of potential breakout players who had never been starters. What do you project for his encore after he emerged as a Pro Bowler?

Barnwell: Heh. We said last year that Miles Austin was really talented and had Pro Bowl potential ... but I don't think even we would have suggested that Austin was going to make the Pro Bowl in 2010. He deserved it, though, and it's remarkable that the Cowboys have been able to churn two Pro Bowlers -- Austin and Jay Ratliff -- off of the bottom of their roster.

Our projection system has him at 63 catches for 970 yards and 7 TD; again, I think that seems a little low, but there are things you have to consider with Austin. As great as he was after the catch last year, even the league's best receivers don't produce that much YAC from year-to-year. He'll still be good after he gets the ball in his hands...just not THAT good. He's also struggled with injuries as a pro, and while he was injured in camp last year, he was healthy once he got into the starting lineup.

The Dallas offensive line, especially Pro Bowlers Andre Gurode and Leonard Davis, took a lot of heat around here this offseason. Do your numbers justify that?

Barnwell: I don't think that's totally fair. Dallas was third in Adjusted Line Yards last season, which is our stat that measures an offensive line's ability to clear consistent holes for a back to gain solid yardage from play to play. The one place that I can say they really did struggle is in power situations, which we define as runs with two yards to go or fewer on third or fourth down, as well as all other runs from inside the opposition's two-yard line. Dallas only converted 58 percent of those, which was 26th in the league.

How close is Mike Jenkins to being an elite cornerback?

Barnwell: Funny what a year can do for a guy! We had Jenkins as 15th in the league in our Yards per Attempt metric, and he was 36th in Success Rate, which measures how frequently passes in a player's direction pushed the offense towards a first down. Not exactly Darrelle Revis, but good numbers for a guy in his second year. He broke up 18 passes, which is one of the reasons why he got a lot of hype last year, but I think he's playing at a reasonably high level already.

What’s the biggest weakness you see for the Cowboys?

Barnwell: I think you have to say safety, no? I certainly think that Jenkins and Terence Newman make for a good combination of cornerbacks, but I just see DeSean Jackson having a field day against Dallas downfield at some point this year.