In the third installment of Futures Faceoff, I’m focusing on one of the greatest active rivalries in the NFL.
The Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys have combined for six of the past seven NFC East championship crowns. Both teams enter this season with high expectations and identical win total lines of 9.5. I will take a deep dive into the strengths and weaknesses of each team and how they addressed them heading into 2020. The goal is to determine which team is the better investment, based on the current odds, in the NFL futures win total market. Let’s break down this rivalry and dial up a winner!
2020 Future Win Totals odds:
- Philadelphia 9.5 (+110)
- Dallas 9.5 (-130)
- 15th in scoring offense (23.2)
- 13th in offensive yards per game (356.1)
- 13th most Giveaways with 23 (8 INT, 15 fumbles lost)
- 6th in scoring offense (27.1)
- 1st in offensive yards (431.5)
- 9th fewest Giveaways with 18 (11 INT, 7 fumbles lost)
The Eagles entered the 2020 offseason with a very clear intention – add more speed to the offense. Injuries riddled the wide receiver group as early as Week 2 in 2019, and inadequate depth forced Carson Wentz to miraculously elevate the team into the postseason. The Eagles’ front office responded by acquiring Marquise Goodwin from the 49ers, and spending their first-round draft pick on TCU wideout Jalen Reagor. The team’s commitment to speed continued on draft night by selecting both John Hightower (4.43) and Quez Watkins (4.35) in the later rounds.
Despite the lack of available speed and overall talent on the outside, the Eagles still finished 14th in overall offensive efficiency in 2019. Doug Pederson and Wentz will welcome the opportunity to utilize DeSean Jackson, Jalen Reagor, and Marquise Goodwin creatively to confuse defenses while opening up the middle for Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert. Miles Sanders, the league’s total yardage leader among rookies last season, will look to continue his ascension into the top echelon of the league. With a strong offensive line returning, the table is set for Wentz to have the best season of his career.
The 2019 Cowboys’ offense was the NFL’s version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Statistically an elite offense, they struggled to execute in big spots against tough competition. An offense that is No. 1 in total yards, No. 1 in yards per play, and No. 2 in offensive DVOA should win more games than they lose. New head coach Mike McCarthy spent last season modernizing his approach after his 13-year run with the Packers came to an end. He elected to retain offensive coordinator Kellen Moore in an effort to streamline the transition for a Dallas offense that was coming off its best year statistically.
The engine of the Cowboys’ offense has always been Ezekiel Elliot, but a shift in philosophy under McCarthy could be coming. Jerry Jones stole the show on draft night by selecting Sooners standout CeeDee Lamb. After getting one of the best wide receiver prospects in the draft, Dallas now has one of the strongest wide receiving corps in the NFL, which complements their rushing attack very well. The combination of Cooper, Gallup, and Lamb makes that offense that much more potent. Some question whether adding a skill position player to an offense of the Cowboys’ caliber was the best use of draft capital, but you likely won’t hear any arguments from Dak Prescott, who couldn’t ask for a better situation if he enters another “prove it” under the league’s franchise tag. Looking to improve on his career-best 4,900-yard season, the only question of the Cowboys’ offense is if Prescott can deliver against the NFL’s best defenses.
- 15th in scoring defense (21.8)
- 10th in opponent yards allowed (334.6)
- 21st in Takeaways with 20 (11 int, 9 fumbles recovered)
- 9th in scoring defense (20.1)
- 9th in opponent yards allowed (327)
- 26th in Takeaways with 27 (7 Int, 10 fumbles recovered)
I can not imagine there was a defense in the NFL last season with greater volatility arc than the Philadelphia Eagles. Philly was a top-three unit in rush yards allowed per game, while at the same time allowing the most explosive passing plays in the NFL. When push came to shove, Jim Schwartz made it work without much talent. The Eagles allowed 17 or fewer points in eight of their final 10 games.
The Eagles’ defense has a much different look in 2020. The transformation includes the bolstering of the defensive line with the return of Malik Jackson and the acquisition of Javon Hargrove. According to PFF, the Eagles are “the only team with a pressure rate of over 40% in the NFL over the past three seasons” and this could easily be their most talented group this year. The Eagles also addressed a leaky secondary by trading for one of the best cover corners in the NFL, Darius Slay. The presence of a dominant corner who excels in man coverage will have a huge impact on the effectiveness of the defense, as Schwartz’s scheme is designed to stack the box and leave the secondary with a significant amount of pressure and responsibility. The biggest question mark with the Eagles defense is how a revamped safety group will look without Malcolm Jenkins.
— Darius Slay (@bigplay24slay) May 27, 2020
The Cowboys’ defense is going through a rebuild of its own as Mike Nolan takes over in 2020. Nolan is the Ryan Fitzpatrick of defensive coaches, with Dallas being his 11th stop in his NFL journey. In his 17 years as defensive coordinator, he has only been a part of four playoff teams. He is assigned the task of improving a defense that suffered significant losses at defensive line and secondary. Robert Quinn and his 11.5 sacks are in Chicago, and the Cowboys’ best cover cornerback Byron Jones signed to play in Miami for $82.5 million. They added HaHa Clinton-Dix, but there are concerns with Dallas getting attacked on the outside, especially if the pass rush is not as effective without Quinn.
On the surface, Dallas’ defense showed well in 2019, ranking in the top ten in both points and yards allowed. However, they were not without their challenges. Having to improve a secondary that is replacing its best player with a rookie isn’t ideal for any new coordinator. USA Today’s Mark Schofield explains how a deeper look into Dallas’ defensive performance shows how significantly they struggled with their pass defense even with Jones on the roster.
“Perhaps most glaring was what this unit did as a pass defense. The Cowboys’ posted a DVOA of 13.2% against the pass, ranking them 23rd in the league.”
Strength of Schedule
Philadelphia doesn’t get any favors in 2020 from the schedule makers. The Eagles have the 14th toughest schedule out of the 32 teams, but they do get the benefit of another soft opening to the season. We should see quickly how the added speed to the offense plays as Philly draws Washington’s and Cincinnatti’s secondaries in the first three weeks. It’s going to be critical for this Eagles to team to take advantage of these winnable games early as Weeks 4-6 presents the toughest opponents – the 49ers, Steelers, and Ravens. While drawing the NFL’s “first place schedule” is a challenge, the Eagles do catch a break having their strongest opponents (Seahawks, Saints, Ravens) at home.
The Cowboys clock in with the ninth easiest schedule, which is good news for a team that had some significant splits in 2019. Unlike last season, the Cowboys face some stiff tests early with road games against the Rams and Seahawks in the first three weeks. Not ideal for a team adapting to a new coaching staff. However, it’s followed by four opponents coming off losing seasons leading up to their Week 8 showdown in Philadelphia. The Cowboys also have the seventh easiest schedule in the second half of the season, but to get over the 9.5 win total, they’ll have to improve their play on the road. In 2019, the Cowboys’ only road wins were against Washington, NY Giants, and Detroit. They were 0-5 against teams who finished with more than four wins.
Can McCarthy cultivate the Cowboys into a winning team?
The short answer is yes. I believe the Cowboys can go over the win total and become a 10-win team in 2020. There are three concerns I have that the Cowboys will have to answer in order to get to the 10 wins:
- Can the pass defense improve?
- Will they be able to protect Prescott without Fredricks?
- Can they improve on the road and against top defenses?
Game situation is an important factor when evaluating the performance of an offense. It’s much easier to score when leading by 7+ points versus a one-possession game or when trailing. A struggling secondary will increasingly put more pressure on the offense and impact the field position as well. There was not a team in the NFL with fewer interceptions than the Cowboys, and I am not convinced they are a better secondary without Byron Jones. Trevon Diggs can be a very talented player in this league, but learning to defend the nuanced releases of professional wide receivers as a rookie is extremely difficult. They should not expect results in year one.
Dallas lost center Travis Fredrick to retirement and there are some questions surrounding the offensive line. The Cowboys drafted Wisconsin rookie Tyler Biadasz to fill the void and have veteran Joe Looney on standby if the rookie isn’t able to immediately make the jump. While Dallas’ tackles are stout, the interior of the offensive line is going to be tested. Prescott is very good at moving within the pocket and adjusting his drops to avoid sacks, but pressure does greatly impact his performance.
In the three games last season where the Dallas’ offensive line allowed double-digit hurries, Prescott was 0-3 completing less than 57% of his passes in two of the three games (vs. Minnesota he completed 60%.) That’s a steep decline from his overall 65% completion percentage. It’s fair to note that McCarthy’s Packers finished towards the bottom of the league in pass protection his last two seasons (22nd and 27th in adjusted sack rate allowed.) If playing under the franchise tag for a new coach isn’t pressure enough, it’s possible he could end up facing much more physical pressure on the field this season.
The $175 million dollar question is how will Prescott handle that pressure after being the catalyst of the 2019 Cowboys’ Jekyll and Hyde persona. Prescott is coming off the best season of his career, but the splits are significant when facing the upper and lower echelon of the league. Prescott was 1-5 against teams that finished in the top 10 of Football Outsiders Defensive Efficiency rankings, and only 2-8 versus teams in the top half of the league. The Cowboys’ offense was unable to produce a single touchdown with the NFC East crown on the line in the crucial Week 16 matchup with the Eagles. They proceeded to rack up 47 points the following week against lowly Washington. Which Prescott will we see in 2020?
Expect the Eagles to cash at over 9.5 wins
Speed separates this Eagles team from previous years. This is the most explosive offense Wentz has had. If you want to see the impact that vertical threats can have on Wentz’s performance, look no further than Week 1 of last season. Wentz completed 71% of his passes for three touchdowns and zero interceptions, connecting with Jackson for 154 yards and two TDs.
WENTZ TO JACKSON by Merrill pic.twitter.com/ZDr6NU7gUd
— Nick Piccone (@nickpiccone) September 9, 2019
WENTZ TO JACKSON II by Merrill pic.twitter.com/Iee9iV4KR3
— Nick Piccone (@nickpiccone) September 9, 2019
Health has been the Eagles’ Achilles heel the last few seasons, but the prioritization of youth and overall depth makes me comfortable predicting they can be a top 10 offense.
Coaching is where the Eagles maintain a clear advantage over Dallas. It’s not a coincidence that Doug Pederson has averaged 9.5 wins in his four years as the Birds’ head coach and that’s exactly where the line is set this season. I will put my chips on Pederson, who has demonstrated the ability to get to the playoffs regardless of what adversity comes his way – a trait Jones hopes McCarthy can instill in his underachieving Cowboys.
Both teams have suffered big losses on defense, but the Eagles were more aggressive in addressing their holes by adding one of the league’s top corners and improving their interior pass rush. I have more confidence backing the team that improved these two key areas than one that saw key departures in those critical spots. Between the two teams, the Eagles’ coaching advantage is even more pronounced on the defensive end with Schwartz vs. Nolan.
The Eagles are the better investment for 2020, and that’s not necessarily an indictment on Dallas. For the reasons discussed above, I think there are some significant questions about the Cowboys’ ability to perform against top defensive teams and how defensive regression and the loss of their Pro Bowl center is going to impact the offense this year. I have the Eagles ahead of the Cowboys in my power rankings, but it’s the odds that really make Philly the team to target here.
Getting the Eagles at +110 vs. paying a premium at -130 for a Cowboys team that went 8-8 last year is enough value for me to back the Birds. The Eagles were the better team last season, but let’s say that you consider these teams equal based on Dallas replacing Garrett and the impact of a new coach getting the most out of his players in year one. After all, both teams’ win total line is identical at 9.5. The difference is in the odds and the value you can extract. There is an 8.9% difference in the implied probability from the Cowboys’ odds at -130 to the Eagles’ at +110. It’s stating that Dallas goes over the 9.5 wins 56.5% of the time while Philly only wins that bet 47.6%. That gap equates to a payout difference of $33.08 per $100 wager. Dallas only pays out at $76.92 at -130 while Philly brings home $110. I don’t see that much separation between the two teams. Philadelphia is being undervalued here. I’m happy to take advantage and grab them at +110.