Dallas Cowboys 2014 Season Review: A Balanced Attack Leads to Success

After a successful season both passing and rushing, the Cowboys face major offseason decisions.

A call in one game supposedly got the Cowboys to the Divisional Round of the playoffs while a call in another game supposedly cost the Cowboys a trip to Seattle.

However, one call does not make or break a team or season.

Calls or non-calls aside, the Cowboys still had a successful 2014 season, and it all started with the hiring of Scott Linehan. They won the division title for the first time since 2009, DeMarco Murray was one of the best running backs in the league, and Dez Bryant continues to get better each year.

So let’s look back at the Cowboys season and see what went right, what went wrong, and what that means for the team moving forward.

The Good: Career Years

Good things were anticipated with Scott Linehan was brought in for the team’s offense, but few expected career years across the board for the Cowboys, starting with Linehan himself. He lived up to his reputation on coming to a team and increasing the team’s offensive efficiency and gave the Cowboys their best efficiency marks since the inception of our Net Expected Points (NEP) data in 2000.

Linehan led the Cowboys to a 0.14 Adjusted NEP per play, almost three times as efficient as the 2013 season and the third highest mark in 2014. It was also the second-highest mark of a Linehan-led offense and the third time his offense has finished in the top-five in the NFL. The passing aspect of the offense was killer too, posting an Adjusted Passing NEP per play of 0.28 -- four times better than the 2013 passing offense and just 0.01 points per play off of the Packers’ top mark.

DeMarco Murray was the definition of a workhorse running back with 392 carries -- the seventh highest total ever in the NFL. Murray rushed for 100 or more yards in 8 straight games and 12 games overall in the regular season. Murray’s 1,845 rushing yards set a career high and is the 17th best single-season mark in the NFL.

As we dig deeper on Murray, he was a top-10 running back within both our Rushing NEP and Rushing NEP per play metrics. His heavy workload helped the Cowboys maintain a perfect 1:1 pass to run ratio in 2014. The balanced offense improved the team’s efficiency and thus allow Tony Romo to have the best season of his career as well.

If we compile all of the full seasons Romo has played, he has averaged 588 drop backs per season. This year, though, Romo had only 465 drop backs. The decreased volume resulted in a more efficient Romo. He had his best Passing NEP per drop back (0.31) after three years in a row with a declining efficiency. His 0.31 ranked second in the NFL behind Aaron Rodgers’ 0.34.

Romo finished fifth in Passing NEP, as well, with 145.10 points above expectation, just his fifth season above 100 points in his nine-year career with his previous best of 126.43 back in 2007. Romo had a career-best 54.84% Success Rate, as well. In other words, nearly 55% of Romo’s drop backs led to a positive gain in NEP, the top mark in 2014.

Despite Romo’s efficiency increase, Dez Bryant did see a slight dip in targets, receptions, and receiving yards. However, his receiving metrics improved significantly.

Prior to 2014, Bryant’s top efficiency mark was 0.89 Reception NEP per target in his first season of 100 or more targets. In the past three seasons, Bryant has seen at least 135 targets each season but posted his highest Reception NEP per target of 0.94 points per target this year. This led Bryant to being the fifth-best receiver in Reception NEP (his previous high was 10th) and the seventh-best in Target NEP (his previous high was ninth).

The Bad: Still the Same Defense

It wasn’t all bad for the Cowboy’s defense. Sure, they lost DeMarcus Ware in free agency (somewhat expected), Sean Lee to injury for the whole season, and Morris Claiborne after the fourth game of the season, but they weren’t the worst defense in the world either.

Here is how they fared against the league average the last two years.

TeamAdj. Def. NEPAdj. Def. PNEPAdj. Def. RNEP
2013 Cowboys75.0748.1824.32
2013 Average32.4731.70-1.88
2014 Cowboys68.7369.7010.48
2014 Average44.3647.57-4.46

Last year, the Dallas defense gave up over twice as many points on defense -- according to our Adjusted Defensive NEP metric -- than an average defense would have, finishing as the 24th best defense in the league -- not exactly great. This year, the Cowboys improved overall, getting closer to being an “average” defense but still finishing 23rd in the league.

The Cowboys defense was slightly improved thanks to a greatly improved rush defense according to our Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP, improving 13.84 points from last year. With the rush defense essentially giving up two fewer touchdowns over the course of the season, they only moved up three spots in the rankings when compared to last year finishing 23rd this year.

But while the rushing defense showed a minor improvement, the passing defense took massive step back, dropping six spots in the rankings from last year and giving up 21.52 points more than they did last year. The defense as a whole needs a massive improvement if they want to compete more year in and year out.

Moving Forward: Show Me the Money

The Cowboys moving forward comes down to Jerry Jones’ willingness and ability to pay his stars. It would be hard to argue letting go of star receiver Dez Bryant as he is just entering his peak years, but you can make the same argument for Murray.

First, Jones has to figure out what to do with his limited cap space -- approximately $7.4 million according to It’s a better situation than Jones was in last year at this time, but he must figure out a way to keep two of the league’s premier skill players, not just an All-Pro linebacker.

Jones could go the route of just outright cutting some of his players to get further below the cap, but now that Jones and the Cowboys have had a stellar season, big changes might be inevitable.

If the Cowboys can’t quite figure out how to maximize their talent while being so close to the salary cap, this promising squad might end up trending backward.