This Dallas Cowboys defense is having an epic season for the wrong reasons
By Matthew Postins
We all know the 2013 edition of the Dallas Cowboys defense will go down as one that was epically bad.
But how bad?
Well, the NFL ranks teams defensively by total yards allowed, which frankly is an antiquated barometer, but let’s start there. Entering Sunday’s game with Washington the Cowboys have given up 5,982 yards. Historically the worst team in NFL history by total yards allowed was last year’s New Orleans Saints defense, which gave up 7,042 yards. The Cowboys would need to give up 1,061 yards in their final two games to eclipse that mark.
Don’t think the Cowboys can catch that? Consider the following. The Cowboys are the only team since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 to give up 600 total yards in a game. They’ve done it twice.
In fact, thanks to ProFootballTalk.com, here are the other potential records the Cowboys defense could take by season’s end:
Most first downs allowed: 350 (NFL record: 406, Baltimore Colts, 1981)
Most passing first downs allowed: 209 (NFL record: 246, Green Bay Packers, 2011)
Most passing yards allowed: 4,163 yards (NFL record: 4,796, Green Bay Packers, 2011)
Yes, epically bad.
The Cowboys will end the season as the seventh, eighth or ninth team to finish a season allowing at least 400 total yards per game defensively. That will depend on the other two teams that are currently allowing more than 400 total yards per game this season – Minnesota and Philadelphia. In fact, if all three finish above that plateau, it will mark the first season in NFL history in which three teams have allowed an average of 400 or more total yards per game in a season.
Below is a comparison of those nine teams.
One thing to take away from this is that total yards allowed isn’t nearly as important as points allowed per game. As you’ll see, if you can tamp down the points allowed per game you still have a chance to win enough games to make the playoffs, and these Cowboys fall right in the wheelhouse of the “average” teams on this list, in terms of final season record.
2013 Dallas Cowboys – 427.3 yards per game/27.5 ppg
To this point the Cowboys are No. 26 in the NFL in points allowed per game. Their defense is among the top teams in the league in turnovers forced with 26. But all of the other numbers look bad through 14 games. The Cowboys have given up 30 or more points in seven games, with a season-high of 51 against the Broncos. But the Cowboys have also allowed 49 points to New Orleans and 45 points to Chicago. The Cowboys have given up 400 or more yards in eight games, 500 or more yards in four games and 600 or more yards in two games. In fact, they’re the only team on this list that gave up at least 600 yards in even one game. Somehow, the Cowboys are 7-7.
2013 Minnesota Vikings – 406.5 yards per game/30.4 ppg
These Vikings have an awful record (4-9-1) and are No. 31 in the NFL in points allowed, part of what is killing the Vikings. The Vikings actually lost to the Cowboys last month. The Vikings are not good at creating mistakes, as their 19 turnovers attest. But they’re not as epically bad as the Cowboys at giving up yards. While the Vikings have given up 400 or more yards in nine games, they have not given up a 500-yard game this season.
2013 Philadelphia Eagles – 402.4 yards per game/24.9 ppg
The Eagles lead the NFC East and could clinch it this weekend with a win and a Cowboys loss. This unit might well be below the 400 yards per game threshold by the end of the season for a couple of reasons. The average yards allowed doesn’t look great, but the Eagles have only allowed 400 or more yards on five occasions, but have given up more than 500 yards twice, which skews the average a bit. The Eagles are forcing turnovers at a similar clip to Dallas (26) and are ranked No. 17 in the NFL in points allowed. Unlike the Cowboys, who have regressed defensively as the season has gone on for a variety of reasons, these Eagles have gotten better. As a result, they’re 5-1 in their last six games.
2012 New Orleans Saints – 440.1 yards per game/28.4 ppg
The Saints went 7-9 in a lost season that saw their head coach, Sean Payton, suspended, along with three defensive players for varying lengths. The Saints ended up setting the single-season NFL record for most total yards allowed in a season. But their dysfunction ran deeper. The Saints were also next-to-last in points allowed (28.4 ppg), including seven games in which the Saints allowed at least 30 points. The Saints ended up allowing at least 500 yards in four different games. They did force 26 turnovers, but five of them came in one game against Tampa Bay in Week 16. Still, their points-per-game average kept them in the playoff mix until late in the season.
2011 Green Bay Packers – 411.6 yards per game/22.4 ppg
The Packers ended up with the third-worst yards-per-game allowed average in NFL history and still ended up going 15-1 and winning the NFC North. How? Well, the offense scored 35 points per game. The defense only allowed 22.4 points per game and the team sported a turnover differential of plus-24, which included the defense forcing 37 turnovers. The Packers only allowed one game of 500 yards or more, but gave up at least 400 yards in 11 of their 15 other regular-season games, plus their playoff loss to the New York Giants.
2011 New England Patriots – 411.1 yards per game/21.4 ppg
This edition of the Patriots became the fourth-worst in NFL history in terms of yards allowed per game, but they were still successful. The Patriots went 13-3, won the AFC East and ended up reaching Super Bowl XLVI before losing to the New York Giants. Like the Packers, the Patriots compensated with a successful offense that averaged 32.1 points per game. Even though the defense gave up yards, it only gave up 21.4 points per game, in the top half of the NFL rankings that year. But the yards piled up. The Patriots gave up 400 or more yards in nine different regular-season games, but not in any of their three postseason games.
2008 Detroit Lions – 404.4 yards per game/32.3 ppg
This edition of the Lions was the most recent team to go winless in a season, as the Lions went 0-16 while giving up a league-worst 32.2 points per game that season. Oddly, the head coach of the Lions that season was current Cowboys defensive line coach Rod Marinelli. The Lions gave up 30 or more points on 11 different occasions. Plus, the defense forced one or fewer turnovers in 11 of 16 regular-season games. The Lions showed what happens when you pair allowing a ton of yards with giving up more than 30 points per game. Bad things.
1983 Green Bay Packers – 400.2 yards per game/27.4 ppg
Bart Starr led the Packers that season as head coach and they finished 8-8. The Packers were ranked No. 26 in the NFL in scoring defense, gave up at least 30 points in five different games and at least 400 yards in six different games. Like the Cowboys this season, the Packers also gave up back-to-back 500-yard games (to Chicago and Tampa Bay) and gave up three 500-yard games for the season.
1981 Baltimore Colts – 424.6 yards per game/33.3 ppg
The Colts might be the worst single defense on this list. The Colts were the first team in the NFL since the AFL-NFL merger to give up more than 400 yards per game in total defense, doing so in a season in which they went 2-14. But the Colts weren’t just bad when it came to yardage. They gave up 533 total points, or 33.3 per game, which was worst in the NFL that season. The Colts gave up 30 or more points in 10 games, including a three-game stretch in which they gave up 41, 43 and 42 points. The Colts gave up 400 or more yards in nine games and 500 or more yards in two games, including a whopping 574 yards to Philadelphia. These Colts are known for bookending season-opening and season-concluding wins with an epic 14-game losing streak in which they lost 11 of those games by 10 or more points, including a Week 14, 37-13 loss, to the Dallas Cowboys. These Colts also one-upped the Cowboys in losing games in which they forced turnovers, as they lost four games in which they forced at least three turnovers, including a game in which the Colts forced six Cleveland turnovers and lost, 42-28.
Statistical sources: Profootballreference.com, Profootballtalk.com.