This was not a year in which the two teams who met in the Super Bowl was much of a surprise. The Eagles and Chiefs were identified as contenders by the halfway point, and they maintained their success all the way to the final game of the season.
The Cowboys, on the other hand, failed to get past the divisional round once again. Despite a dominant wild card victory over Tom Brady’s Bucs, Dallas remained a step behind the real contenders. The conference champions that took the field on Sunday in the biggest game of the year presented the Cowboys with a few learning opportunities as they look to regroup for the 2023 season. Here’s what Mike McCarthy and company can learn from this year’s Super Bowl competitors.
Earn a bye
This is both obvious and easier said than done, but it cannot be overstated how large of an advantage having a bye in the playoffs has been in the NFL over the last decade. No matter how good a team is, getting that week off is a huge bonus. Since 2013, 17 of the 20 Super Bowl participants have had a first-round bye. Every now and then, an anomaly like last year occurs, when the Titans and Packers were both bounced in the divisional round. But the extra week off helps far more than it harms, and it’s no accident that the Eagles and Chiefs rested during the wild card weekend before fairly comfortable victories in the divisional round.
If that anecdotal evidence isn’t enough, we can break out some theoretical probabilities to back it up. Let’s say a fifth seed has a 55 percent chance to win on the road in each of three playoff games. That would put the chances of reaching the Super Bowl at 16.7 percent (.55 x .55 x .55).
On the other hand, if that same team had, say, a 60 percent chance of winning each of two playoff games as the number one seed (because these would be home games), its chances of reaching the Super Bowl would increase by about 20 percentage points, up to 36 percent (.60 x .60).
Dallas has won at least 12 games in three of seven seasons since drafting Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott in 2016. They had a bye that season (when the league was still awarding two in each conference), but in three playoff appearances since, they had to play in the wild-card round. We know how those seasons ended. Getting that number-one seed needs to be the Cowboys’ number-one goal.
Invest in a proper second receiving option
Anyone who watched the Cowboys this season has most likely already considered this to be a top priority for 2023. If not, the Eagles and Chiefs exemplified the need for an effective secondary receiving option in the Super Bowl. Kansas City isn’t quite as obvious in this department, considering it let Tyreek Hill, its top wideout, leave last summer, but remember that its number one target isn’t a wide receiver—it’s Travis Kelce, arguably the best tight end in the game. After him, Juju Smith-Schuster is pretty easily a better secondary option than anything the Cowboys had this year.
Meanwhile, the Eagles, featuring young stars A.J. Brown and Devonta Smith, had perhaps the best 1-2 receiving punch in the NFL after Miami’s Hill and Jaylen Waddle.
While CeeDee Lamb proved to be a fantastic first option this year, the secondary targets in the offense provided well below league-average production. The chart above shows the total receiving yards of the numbers one and two receivers for each team, but if we use something like receiving EPA (to better account for game situations), the results look essentially the same if not worse for Dallas.
The Chiefs signed Smith-Schuster to a free-agent deal last offseason, while the Eagles made a splash trade for Brown. The Cowboys’ biggest move, meanwhile, was spending a third-round pick on Jalen Tolbert. They all got what they paid for. Dallas needs to up the ante to bring their offense to a more consistent level in 2023.
Keep investing in the defensive line
Here’s an area in which the Cowboys are already in line with this year’s Super Bowl teams: you can never have too many pass rushers.
Dallas went into the season with the most potent pass rush in the NFL. Despite knowing that this was an area of strength, led by Micah Parsons and DeMarcus Lawrence, the Cowboys added another edge rusher, using a second-round draft pick on Sam Williams. They invested in Dorance Armstrong, who turned in the best season of his career. And when Randy Gregory walked in free agency, Dallas brought in Dante Fowler Jr. as another body to throw in the mix. By continuing to add to an already dangerous pass rush, the Cowboys put together a unit that tied for third in the NFL in sacks. The only teams with more? Why, the Eagles and Chiefs, of course.
The Eagles have had a strong presence on their defensive line ever since Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox arrived in 2010 and 2012, respectively. But they didn’t stand pat this year, signing Hassan Reddick to a big free-agent deal and making a mid-season trade for Robert Quinn. The Chiefs, who already had All-Pro Chris Jones and Pro Bowler Frank Clark, spent their first-round pick on George Karlaftis. Then they added Carlos Dunlap to the mix in July.
This is an area to which you can’t devote too many resources. Luckily, the Cowboys have not been afraid to continue adding to this position group, and that’s a strategy they should stick to heading into this offseason.
Avoid the running back sunk-cost fallacy
This is a lesson Dallas can take away from the Chiefs more than the Eagles.
The Cowboys paid Ezekiel Elliott a large sum of money over a long period of time because he used to be the best running back in the NFL. Since signing his extension in 2019, Elliott hasn’t been bad, but he hasn’t been Zeke, either. He has averaged 4.0 yards per carry over the last three seasons, after averaging 4.6 yards per carry in his first four. This year he was clearly not the best running back in Dallas. The NFL’s Next Gen Stats expected Elliott to gain exactly as many yards per carry as Tony Pollard, based on the location of every player on the field at the time of the handoff. But Pollard was by far the more efficient back.
Kansas City is one team that has avoided falling into this trap. In Patrick Mahomes’ five seasons as the starting quarterback, five players have led the team in rushing. The alien quarterback is a big factor here, of course, but the Chiefs have shown a willingness to hand the rushing workload to whomever they believe will help them win. First-round pick Clyde Edwards-Helaire led the group in his rookie season in 2020, but over the past two years he was supplanted by an undrafted free agent (Darrel Williams) and a seventh-round rookie (Isiah Pacheco). He got phased out of the passing game, too, in favor of 30-year-old Jerrick McKinnon. Edwards-Helaire has had injury issues, but he was a healthy scratch for the Super Bowl for a reason. Kansas City refused to play him on sentiment.
Bottom line: don’t let your investment in a player dictate his usage. The focus needs to be on using the player who gives the team the best chance of winning.
One more obvious but important takeaway: the NFL is an offensive-centric league. The Chiefs and Eagles led the NFL with 59 and 57 offensive touchdowns, respectively, during the regular season. They didn’t slow down in the playoffs, combining for a whopping nine offensive touchdowns in the biggest game of the year. These were the only two offenses to score more touchdowns than the Cowboys.
The Cowboys were the most efficient red zone team in the NFL in 2022, which undeniably is a good thing. The only issue is that red zone efficiency isn’t a stable metric, and there’s a decent chance Dallas regresses a bit next season. What this means is that the Cowboys cannot be complacent. Keep adding to the offense and be aggressive when you have the ball. Don’t settle for field goals.
If the Cowboys do take some of these things away from the Super Bowl teams, including the varied running back usage and the importance of a second receiving target, that red zone efficiency might just stay near the top of the NFL. Sustaining those touchdown drives will be a key aspect of the 2023 season, as the Cowboys try to get back into the mix for the top seed in the NFC and a first-round playoff bye. That’s where the focus needs to be as we set sail on a pivotal offseason in Dallas.