Key fantasy questions around the NFC East
(This is the second of an eight-part, four-week series from Pat Thorman attempting to answer pressing fantasy questions in each of the NFL’s divisions. Follow the whole series here.)
As we do every July during the run-up to training camp, let’s take a spin around the league to ask – and attempt to correctly answer – one fantasy-relevant question of each team. The NFC East, home of the defending Super Bowl champions, is up next. This season, the division faces the up-and-coming AFC South and high-powered NFC South.
With a mountain of unclaimed opportunity and 2017’s pace spike, can we be a little confident in the Cowboys passing game?
It is no secret the Cowboys desire a slow-paced, snap-sucking offense. Sub-optimal as this is, the aim is to shorten games and dominate time of possession with their offensive line and running game. They run few plays and hope to allow even fewer in their 1950s-football world. Last season, however, it didn’t work out as planned.
While 2017 wasn’t exactly a play-volume bonanza, Dallas tied for their highest ranking during the last half-decade in both plays per game (18th-most) and plays per game allowed (21st-most). Of course, they remained one of the league’s most run-heavy teams, finishing third in situation-neutral run rate (50 percent) while handing off at the fourth-highest clip when leading by at least a touchdown (71 percent).
Yet the Cowboys uncharacteristically abandoned the run when losing by a touchdown or more (28 percent; fourth-lowest), and – not coincidentally – their overall snap pace spiked. The Cowboys ranked 19th in seconds per snap, after finishing no higher than 29th during the previous three seasons. They ran more no-huddle (10 percent of snaps), although it wasn’t an enormous increase from 2015 (seven percent) and 2016 (six percent).
It’s more likely that negative game scripts affected the Cowboys, than they underwent a shift in offensive philosophy while operating under the same coaching staff and GM-for-life. If Dallas reacts similarly to what should be comparable game scripts in 2018 – they’re projected to win 8.5 games versus their nine wins last year – they are probably in for equivalent snap volume.