IRVING, Texas – We ask ourselves this question every year after the official end to football season: Is there anything we can learn from Super Bowl 50 as it relates to the Dallas Cowboys' chances of contention in 2016?
My biggest takeaway is, well, takeaways.
The best case study isn't the champion Broncos. It's the runner-up Panthers, undoubtedly disappointed in Sunday's outcome but clearly the biggest roadblock for Dallas and the rest of the NFC entering next season.
Statistics can be twisted and bent to fit agendas, but turnover differential is the purest factor in wins and losses. And for 18 games (17 of them wins) no team was better than Carolina in this area.
The Panthers lost that battle against Denver, and it cost them.
Before we get back to the Cowboys, just look at Carolina's dominance in their first 18 games – 15 regular-season wins, one loss and two NFC playoff victories over Seattle and Arizona – and the stark contrast in the Super Bowl.
In their first 18 games:
- They led the league with 47 takeaways, including 39 in the regular season for a plus-20 turnover differential.
- Their 47 takeaways led to 173 of 580 total points entering Super Bowl Sunday (29.8 percent). Three of them were interceptions that led to 17 points in a 33-14 win over the Cowboys on Thanksgiving.
- Carolina scored six defensive touchdowns and started 25 drives off turnovers inside opponents' territory. Twenty-five! As great as league MVP Cam Newton played all season long, think about how much that helped his offense.
- They lost the turnover battle in only three games (3-0 record).
- Despite the notion that they got all the way to the Super Bowl without a true test, they had a 6-1 record in games decided by a touchdown or less. Those extra possessions helped.
What changed in San Francisco on Sunday? The Panthers scored one field goal off two takeaways but also committed a season-high four turnovers due in large part to the Broncos' pass rush. Carolina's calling card all season long – feasting off turnovers – became Denver's.
Conversely, here's how the Cowboys fared in 16 games in 2015:
- They had a league-low 11 takeaways and a minus-22 turnover differential in 16 games.
- Their 11 takeaways led to 27 of 275 total points (9.8 percent).
- They had one defensive touchdown and started four drives off turnovers inside opponents' territory.
- They lost the turnover battle in 11 games (2-9 record).
- They had a 2-6 record in games decided by a touchdown or less.
See, this is why the Cowboys understand fixing 4-12 goes beyond having a healthy Tony Romo and Dez Bryant. A big reason they went 12-4 a year ago were the short fields those guys got from 31 defensive takeaways, second most in the league.
Now, here's the issue: I don't know exactly how to explain the drop from 31 to 11 in one season. Taking the ball away is something Rod Marinelli and his defensive staff coach and preach by the minute around here.
As we saw Sunday, a large percentage of turnovers are created by pressure on the quarterback. The Cowboys know this. They didn't affect Aaron Rodgers enough in the 2014 playoffs, and last offseason they added more pieces to the defensive line. Yet the defense's sack total only jumped from 28 to 31.
To some degree, I think the takeaway drop is in fact related to injuries and subsequent struggles on offense. The Cowboys trailed in a lot more games this season than last season. When your opponent is ahead, and they're not being challenged consistently by your offense, they don't feel compelled to take as many chances. The defense also simply didn't pick up some fumbles or dropped some interceptions. There were missed opportunities.
Whatever the reasons, the production must improve next season. Look how the turnover battle decided Super Bowl Sunday.