How Legitimate Are the Dallas Cowboys?

Are they really as good as they seem or did they just perform well against mediocre teams?

We're at the point in the NFL season where we begin to see the haves and have nots of the NFL. The Cowboys are one of the teams that many thought would have been part of the latter group. They mismanaged their cap and lost out on DeMarcus Ware over the offseason, and then lost the next biggest name on their defense, Sean Lee, to injury, leaving a mess on the defensive side of the ball.

Dallas was supposed to be a team that was going to have a high-flying offense and a porous defense, and not even compete for a playoff spot. Five weeks later, and they’re tied for the division lead with the Eagles.

Are the Cowboys really a team to be feared?

Linehan’s True Effect

Much was made about Scott Linehan coming to Dallas this season, especially by yours truly. However, this is not what many expected to see in the Big D. Linehan was set to make a superstar out of Dez Bryant, a stellar sidekick out of Terrance Williams and a powerful dual-threat back in DeMarco Murray. So far that hasn’t been the case – but the Cowboys seem to be better off this way. Their journey to their 4-1 starts with Linehan's play-calling.

With Linehan leading the offense, the Cowboys have become a top-five running team. The Cowboys enter Week 6 with a 1.03 pass to run ratio; last year their pass to run ratio was 1.85, the fourth-highest in the league.

Has this translated into better efficiency? The metrics below compare the 2013 offense to the one in 2014, according to our own Net Expected Points (NEP) metrics.

NEP per PlayPassing NEP per PlayRushing NEP per Play

Overall, the Cowboys do look better from an efficiency standpoint. A lot better. The Adjusted NEP per play for the offense has more than doubled from last year, thanks all to the passing offense tripling their efficiency over last year.

However, the Cowboys are running the ball at such a high volume that it's difficult to sustain high rushing marks, despite their success in terms of yardage. However, it's tough to bash anything Linehan has done this year, as the two units comprise the eighth-most efficient offense in the NFL on a per-play basis.

Murray the Machine

With regards to the running game, just how good has Murray been this year? By sitting at 670 yards on the season already, Murray is on pace for 2,144 yards – breaking Eric Dickerson’s record – so “Murray Watch” has begun. Murray doesn’t have a lot of receiving yards – yet – but he is also on pace for 2,445 yards from scrimmage, nearing Chris Johnson’s record (2,509 yards).

Yards are fun to look at, especially when records are involved, but numberFire’s Rushing NEP and Rushing NEP per play will tell the bigger story. Murray currently ranks eighth (3.34 Rushing NEP) among backs that have carried the ball at least 40 times and is 11th in efficiency, adding 0.03 points above expectation per carry. A lot of that has to do with his fumbling issues though.

Right now, Murray is on pace for 416 carries. The league hasn’t seen a back with even 360 carries since 2008. We shouldn't expect him to hit that mark, and with less volume, he can definitely improve on his efficiency.

Murray isn't contributing nearly as much as he did last year and he's currently receiving 85% of all carries for the Cowboys. Last year, he received 70% of carries, the highest share he had seen in his short career, so regression should be expected eventually.

Don't Forget About Romo

While the running game hasn't been bad efficiency-wise, the passing game has and a big part of the Cowboys' success. And that has to do with Tony Romo.

Heading into Week 6, Romo is sixth of all quarterbacks in Passing NEP, a placement he is very familiar with. In Romo's career, he's finished out of the top 10 in our Passing NEP twice in nine years as starter. Romo looks to be well on his way to another top-10 finish, if not a top-5 one (which he's done three times as well).

How is Romo doing it? He's performing as efficiently as he ever has. Despite the dud against the 49ers in Week 1, Romo is contributing 0.23 Passing NEP per drop back so far this season. Not only is that sixth among quarterbacks with at least 90 drop backs, but that is the best mark Romo has hit since 2007.

Romo is also doing it with the help of the running game. With the Cowboys running the ball, Romo has less pressure on his shoulders. While it's not a significant reduction in the number of attempts Romo is taking, he's only dropped back to pass an average of 33 times per game this season compared to 37 times per game throughout his career. Romo is doing more with less and the Cowboys are starting to reap the benefits. If he continues at this pace, he could easily exceed 120 Passing NEP, which would be close to the best season of his career.

Defensive Turnaround?

Despite all the accolades on offense, the defense has performed, well, average as a whole. And for the Cowboys, that may be more than enough. Overall, the Cowboys defense ranks 18th according to our Adjusted (for strength of schedule) Defensive NEP metric, playing 20.78 points below expectation so far this season. Their rush defense ranks 24th, while their pass defense ranks 17th.

What's been key for Dallas' defense, really, has been the team's offense. The Cowboys rank 25th in plays against, but the teams below them have already had their bye. In other words, the offense is keeping its own defense off the field, allowing for the unit to rest and play at their highest ability.

If the Cowboys get rookie defensive end Demarcus Lawrence back in a couple weeks, it could give a good boost to the defense overall, too.

Playoff Bound?

A top-10 quarterback, running back and - potentially - a top-10 receiver can be the start of a successful formula. Add the right coach to the equation and you find yourself with an offense that is improving its effectiveness at least in the passing game. The Cowboys' offense could be hard to beat the rest of the season but the defense will be the biggest question.

The upcoming schedule has its share of good and bad teams for Dallas. But they have yet to play any divisional opponent, and the Eagles and Giants are both top-13 teams, per our power rankings. It's not going to be an easy road to the playoffs.

Currently, the Cowboys are favorites to win their division, but only by 2.2% over the Eagles. If their defense holds up, we could have one of the closest division races all year. If not, they still have a have a 59.9% chance to grab a playoff spot. Either way, the pieces are place for the Cowboys to have a strong season and punch a ticket to the playoffs.