The Dallas Cowboys underachieved in 2008. After finishing with the conference's best record and 13 Pro Bowl players in 2007, Dallas entered the year as the favorites out of the NFC. Our pre-season preview gave the team a 12-4 record and saw them losing by just two points in the Super Bowl. Instead, the Cowboys not only fell short of those expectations, they missed the playoffs altogether with a 9-7 record and a third place finish in the division.
In-season injuries to Tony Romo, Felix Jones, Terrence Newman and others did not help, but this team still should have been in the playoffs. Accounting for games that were actually missed and without changing anything, we recently re-simulated the 2008 NFL season 10,000 times. In that analysis, the Dallas Cowboys finished the season 11-5 (11.2-4.8). This indicates that the team's actual record underperformed its actual statistics by at least two games. Some of this is just misfortune, yet this likely signifies potential "chemistry" issues that kept the Cowboys from winning games they should have "on paper" (or "in computer" in this case).
While it is hard to pinpoint any or all of those issues on the recently-released Terrell Owens specifically, we can look at his on the field value to determine whether Dallas could have expected to be as good or better without TO. After simply re-simulating the season 10,000 times, we removed Owens from the Cowboys and simulated 2008 10,000 more times to see how Dallas would fare. The only minor change that we made was to include Roy E. Williams on the team for the full season as opposed to just ten games - assuming the team would have made this move sooner without another number one wideout like TO.
The new Cowboys may not necessarily be improved without Owens, but they are not much worse on the field. In the second simulation of the 2008 season, Dallas finishes 11-5 (11.1-4.9), which is almost identical to their expected record with TO. Given that there is some reason to believe that the team’s underperformance was at least somewhat related to Terrell Owens, it is reasonable to believe that the team may actually have been better without him. At the very least, it would not have been any less capable of winning.
The effect that Owens' absence has on the numbers of the rest of the skill position players for the Cowboys is definitely interesting. Quarterback Tony Romo, who actually completed 61.3% of his passes for 3,448 yards, 26 TDs and 14 INTs in 13 games, now completes 61.4% of his attempts for 3,051 yards, 20 TDs and 12 INTs in the same amount of time. With a little more focus on running the ball (and less on throwing to Owens to make him happy), Romo attempts 32 less passes than he did in the real season.
Romo's completions are a little more spread out than in actuality when TO caught 30 more passes than any other receiver. Among the wideouts, Roy Williams leads with 63 receptions for 869 yards and seven touchdowns. He is closely followed by Patrick Crayton who has 53 catches for 702 yards and four scores. Miles Austin and Isaiah Stanback combine for similar numbers to real-life with 13 receptions for 250 yards.
At tight end, Romo's roommate, Jason Witten improves upon an already stellar performance by leading the team and all NFL tight ends with 91 catches for 1,025 yards and six touchdowns. Second-year player Martellus Bennett shines as well grabbing 22 passes for 309 yards and four scores.
Balancing the offense is a running back trio of Marion Barber III, Tashard Choice and Felix Jones. Despite injuries to each, these three combine for 1,873 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns on 427 carries, besting their actual totals of 1,623 rushing yards and 12 scores on 360 carries. They also aid in the passing game with 64 catches for 545 yards.
While there are still too many unknowns to accurately speculate on the 2009 season, Cowboys' fans can feel good knowing that Dallas is not taking a step backwards in on-field talent or likelihood of winning by releasing Terrell Owens – especially considering that it is evident that Owens’ abilities are also regressing as he ages, making his likely impact in 2009 less than 2008.
Paul Bessire is the Senior Quantitative Analyst and Product Manager for WhatIfSports.com. With any comments, questions or topic suggestions, Paul can be reached at BtB@whatifsports.com. Thanks!