Let's get out our crystal balls. Looking into the future, let's pretend we're given access to one number for the Cowboys in 2013 – just one individual stat that we can use to deduce the team's fate. Which one would you choose?
The two most important ones for me would be adjusted net yards per attempt, an advanced stat I discussed here,and takeaways. The former stat remains fairly steady from year to year; we pretty much know that Tony Romo is going to pass the ball efficiently.
But there's a whole lot more variance in takeaway totals. They fluctuate so much from season to season, which in many ways, makes them even more important. Whereas Romo can basically control the fate of the offense, the defense's value, which is controlled heavily by takeaways, is more or less up in the air at this point.
Last year, the Cowboys were obviously on the wrong end of the spectrum. They forced only 16 turnovers all season. In comparison, 13 NFL teams had at least that many interceptions alone. If Dallas has any shot of winning the NFC East, the takeaways need to increase in a hurry. It's simply the most important stat for the Cowboys in 2013.
And although heavily influenced by randomness, we can still predict the Cowboys' takeaway total, for two reasons. First, there's still some skill involved with forcing turnovers. I showed that in this article on why pressure is the most important factor in generating takeaways.
Second, just because something is random doesn't mean it's not predictable. Actually, random events can become very predictable because they regress toward the mean. If you get dealt pocket aces in poker, for example, you're almost guaranteed a worse hand the next time around, even though it's effectively random. When something happens at or near the extreme like that, the future becomes easy to predict.
Well, the Cowboys' 2012 takeaway total was an outlier; even if they played really poorly, we'd expect more than 16 interceptions and fumble recoveries. That's one of the reasons that Monte Kiffin is in such an amazing position; even if the Cowboys don't improve at all, it will look like they did simply because they won't be so unlucky with injuries and takeaways.
So we know Dallas will force more turnovers this year. But how many?
The 'Boys had seven picks in all of 2012, the fewest in the NFL. I think part of the reason for that is Rob Ryan didn't put his cornerbacks in position to make plays on the football as frequently as he could have. Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr are one of the better play-making cornerback duos in the NFL, and I think Monte Kiffin's scheme will more successfully allow them to show that.
To predict the Cowboys' interception total, let's start up front with the pass-rush. Dallas ranked only 20th in sacks and 23rd in pressures in 2012. There's good reason to think the pass-rush will improve this year with Kiffin in town, but what can we realistically expect from Dallas?
Odds are they'll have right around a league average pressure rate, meaning we can use the NFL average for picks, 15, as our baseline. Given the Cowboys' switch to more zone coverage, their emphasis on undersized pass defenders, and the quality of their cornerbacks, we can probably bump up that projection just a bit. We'll call it 17. For the record, that would have ranked them 11th in the league last year.
Predicting Fumble Recoveries
Fumble recoveries are extremely random because, once a fumble occurs, it's really difficult to predict who will end up with the football. But forced fumbles aren't that random. There's a reason we see certain teams and players – Chicago Bears cornerback Charles Tillman comes to mind – rank high in forced fumbles. There's a skill to it.
Last year, the average team forced 16.4 fumbles and recovered 10.3 of them. That's a 62.5 percent fumble recovery rate for defenses, meaning they're slightly more likely than the offense to land on the ball. Considering the nature of Kiffin's defense, we can probably project the Cowboys to increase their forced fumble total in 2013. We'll say a small jump to 18. If that's the case, the most probable result would be right around 11 fumble recoveries.
And just like that, we have our projection: 17 picks and 11 fumble recoveries for a total of 28 takeaways – nearly one more per game than we saw in 2012.
Let's look back into our crystal balls. What number do you see when it comes to the team's takeaways? If it's anywhere near the 28-30 range, the Dallas Cowboys are a playoff team.