IRVING, Texas – As with all 8-8 seasons, the good goes hand in hand with the bad.
The Cowboys fixed some of their past problems from their previous two 8-8 seasons, while new ones popped up in the latest .500 finish in 2013.
This DallasCowboys.com series takes a look at both the good and the bad, analyzing some of the positive, more promising aspects of the 2013 season alongside the negative, more troubling traits as the team prepares for a new year.
Our first edition focuses on the defense, which helped get the takeaways back to a respectable number but struggled mightily in most other aspects, leading many to believe the defense will be addressed heavily in the upcoming draft.
Promising: The six takeaways the Cowboys created in the opener began the season with a ton of optimism that was obviously and inevitably unsustainable. Still though, the Cowboys changed their defensive staff with the hope of creating more turnovers, and their 28 takeaways in 2013 nearly doubled the 16 of the year prior. The defense almost got half the takeaway total of the 2012 season in the opener alone.
Understandably, as the massive amounts of injuries piled up, so too did the lulls in the takeaway department. The Cowboys had 11 interceptions and forced eight fumbles in their first eight games, while picking off just four passes and forcing five fumbles in their final eight games of the year. The Cowboys' 28 takeaways – 15 picks and 13 forced fumbles – marked their most since 2010, when they created 30 takeaways. Miraculously, the Cowboys were able to finish a little above the middle tier of the league in takeaways despite being worst in the league in sacks per pass attempt, ending the year at 5.46 percent in that department.
When the sacks lessened, so too did the takeaways, but the Cowboys still finished plus-eight in turnover ratio. Head coach Jason Garrett continuously pointed to takeaways as a strong point of the defense, but to sustain that next season the defense will need to stay healthier and add a few pieces.
Troubling: That opener against the Giants was more telling than anyone might have realized. Most of the focus was on the whopping six takeaways, while the Giants' 428 passing yards got mostly ignored initially because of the win. That would be a trend that'd continue the rest of the way, whether the team was healthy or not. The Cowboys ended up the worst in the league in yards allowed per game (415.3) and first downs allowed per game (24.3).
Apart from takeaways, there wasn't a single plus-minus category compared to the rest of the NFL that the Cowboys' defense was on the better end of. Most troubling other than the yards and first downs were the third down conversions and opponents' red zone percentage. Only the defenses of the Falcons, Browns and Vikings allowed a higher third down conversion percentage than the Cowboys, whose 43.33 percent was more than five percent worse than the rest of the defenses in the NFL. The Cowboys also allowed opponents to convert 50 percent of the time on fourth down (2.3 percent worse than the league average). Only the Texans' defense surrendered a poorer red zone conversion percentage than the Cowboys, who allowed opponents to get in the end zone 64.52 percent of the time from that distance. The league average was 55.53 percent.
Anyone watching the defense in 2013 didn't need these stats to know it was a struggle much of the year, with injuries playing a vital role in that. The Cowboys need to find a way to stay healthier, improve the personnel and have their young draft picks take major strides to hope to reverse their misfortunes of 2013.