Troubling Dallas Cowboys Stat: How sacks are the equivalent of turnovers

Quarterback Dak Prescott #4 of the Dallas Cowboys (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Quarterback Dak Prescott #4 of the Dallas Cowboys (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images) /

The Dallas Cowboys may not be turning the ball over very often but they’re doing something that collectively is just as bad – suffering sacks.

Bill Parcells once taught us, the best time to apply criticism is on the heels of victory. At a time when the Dallas Cowboys are riding a four-game winning streak, stand a surprising 7-5, and hold first place in the division, the time to criticize is now.

While Dak Prescott and the passing game have undeniably improved since the addition of Amari Cooper, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows in the Dallas Cowboys ballistic department. There’s a couple troubling trends that threaten to reap disastrous consequences in the near future.

One of those we discussed earlier in the week in my mostly glowing piece on No. 4, “The Old Dak is Back”. In it I discussed his propensity to put the ball on the carpet and how it could ultimately end the Dallas Cowboys postseason in one ill-timed moment.

While it’s nothing new to call a turnover a game changer, it’s less accepted to call a handful of sacks a turnover’s near-equal. But as we learn more and more about EP (Earned Points) we come to realize three or four sacks can be the EPA (Earned Points Added) equivalent of a turnover. And on a team like the Dallas Cowboys who are on pace to shatter franchise records in sacks-suffered, that’s a very relevant conversation to have at this moment.


EPA is an advanced statistic that’s building up steam around the NFL. EPA was created to better represent performance (player, specific plays, and field position) based on situation. Basically it adds context to a performance.  For instance: what value is a run for 5-yards on 3rd and 10? It’s certainly not better than a 2-yard run on 3rd and 1, yet normal stat lines would always mislead a reader.

Brian Burke sums it up nicely here:

"“Suppose the offense has  a 1st and 10 at midfield. This situation is worth +2.0 EP. A 5-yard gain would set up a 2nd and 5 from the 45, which corresponds to a +2.1 EP. Therefore, that 5-yard gain corresponds to a +0.1 EP. This gain is called Expected Points Added (EPA). Likewise, a 5-yard loss on 1st down at midfield would create a 2nd and 15 from the offense’s own 45. That situation is worth +1.2 EP, representing a net difference of -0.8 EPA.”"

So you can see when you factor in down, distance, and field position the numbers suddenly have meaning. Think of EP as “the anti-fantasy football stat line” (since it’s actually relevant yards).

This also illustrates how if a 5-yard negative play results in negative EPA, it doesn’t take long before those sacks equal the negative EPA result a turnover does.

"“Suppose that on 2nd and 5 at the opponent’s 45 there was a fumble recovered by the defense. The 2nd and 5 was worth +2.2 EP, but now the opponent has a 1st and 10 on their own 45 worth +2.1 EP to them. The result of the play represents -2.1 EP for the original offense for a net loss of -4.3 EP. On average, a fumble in that situation means a net expected loss of a little more than 4 points.”"

Not only do 3-4 sacks equal the point swing a turnover does, but sacks have a way of causing turnovers themselves. There shouldn’t be a mystery as to why Dak leads the NFL in both sacks and fumbles. The two are directly related.

From an EPA perspective, it makes this whole situation even worse for the Dallas Cowboys. Dak may not be throwing interceptions, but if you consider the impact of these sacks and fumbles, it’s as if he’s averaging two interceptions per game (without the obvious benefit that comes with an aggressive passing attack).

Who’s to blame?

Early on this season, Dak Prescott deserved majority of the blame for these sacks. But recently, the guilt has shifted to the party traditionally blamed for crimes of this nature: the offensive line. Dalton Miller ran through each and every snap this season and applied culpability accordingly. The result? Dak is responsible for roughly a third of his sacks while the patchwork O-line gets the bill for the remaining majority.

Don’t believe it? Catch up for yourself above on his thread. If you’re like Dalton and Pro Football Focus, you’ll probably come to the same conclusion (Full disclosure: I think I’m guilty of adding a touch more blame than the above parties, since I let those years of watching Romo “houdini” his way out of impossible situations reset my baseline and be unfairly harsh).

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What’s the lesson in all of this?

The Dallas Cowboys winning ways are unsustainable if they keep taking sacks at this rate. For a team to survive the EPA effects of turnovers and sacks, they need to be slinging the ball and scoring points. They cannot be conservative AND give up this much negative EPA at the same time.

This doesn’t mean they need to start passing more either, it just means the current formula is a recipe for disaster at some point.

The good news is Dak is getting much better in the pocket and there are more weapons getting open downfield than ever before. Also, Tyron Smith and Connor Williams will make the pass protection better (My guess is Williams will be a starter after this Sunday) and the sacks should drop accordingly.

Next. Should the Cowboys retire the TE position and spread out?. dark

We can no longer overlook the sacks this Dallas Cowboys team is giving up because the consequences are too severe. Special thanks to Dalton Miller, Brian Burke, and Cowboys Stats and Graphics for making us all smarter.

  • Published on 12/07/2018 at 13:32 PM
  • Last updated at 12/07/2018 at 17:07 PM