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Football

Why Do the Cowboys Look So Bad on the Road? Let’s Deep Dive.

We know it's bad. And two areas stand out as especially bad.
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There have been too many moments of frustration on the road this season for Dallas. Jamie Germano/Rochester Democrat and Chronicle / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Cowboys might be the most bizarre Super Bowl contender we’ve seen in recent memory. They’ve put together four wins in which they beat their opponent by at least 30 points (that’s good!), and yet they’ve also lost by at least three touchdowns on two occasions, including on Sunday against the Buffalo Bills. (That’s bad!) Their recent five-game winning streak gave hope that the temperamental and unpredictable nature of this team might finally be disappearing, but a 31-10 drubbing by the Bills sucked the wind out of that hope.

And indeed the fact that this game came in Buffalo does seem to point to the underlying theme of this odd season. Because Dallas simply has not been the same team at home that it has been on the road, and it’s starting to look like much more than your standard home-field advantage. This thing that has been following the Cowboys around all season (and which reared its ugly head big time on Sunday) is best boiled down into two numbers that you need to know, and WFAA broadcaster Mike Leslie sums it up perfectly here:

The Cowboys are undefeated in AT&T Stadium, outscoring their opponent by a score of 40-15 on average. It’s a truly astounding sight to behold—40 points per game over seven games is something we haven’t seen since 2011, when the New Orleans Saints and the Green Bay Packers averaged 41 and 40 points per home game, respectively. But neither those Saints nor those Packers had a defense that held down its side of the bargain as well as this Cowboys team. Put the numbers together, and the 25-point average margin of victory is the largest we’ve seen since the 1999 St. Louis Rams beat down visitors in Trans World Dome by an average of almost 26 points per game. The difference between these Cowboys and the “Greatest Show on Turf,” however, is that those Rams also got it done on the road, winning by double digits on average in their away games. Dallas, meanwhile, has a winning percentage under .500 and holds a negative point differential in road games.

So, why? 

The first thing one might look for when assessing home/road splits like this is the quality of the opposition. The Cowboys don’t have a clear-cut case of a more difficult home schedule: teams visiting AT&T this year carry an average .457 win percentage, while teams the Cowboys have traveled to face carry an average .462 win percentage. 

However, the Cowboys’ home and road opponents differ significantly in the manner in which they have won games. At home, Dallas has faced the fourth-easiest schedule of opposing offenses when measured by EPA per play or success rate and around average opposing defenses. On the road, Dallas has faced around average opposing offenses, but the third-easiest schedule of opposing defenses. The Bills were only the second opponent the Cowboys have faced on the road that has an above-average defense as measured by EPA per play allowed. (San Francisco was the other, and we know how that game turned out.)

Essentially, the failures of both the offense and the defense in road games is not merely a function of the opponents they’ve faced.

The next step in looking at the production of the Cowboys in home games vs. road games is to break it down into offensive and defensive components. This is where we find a significant change in production depending on the venue.

At home, Dallas features the second-most efficient offense in the NFL, behind only the 49ers. The defense at home ranks third in the NFL in terms of EPA per play allowed, behind the Dolphins and the Browns. On the road, the offense takes quite a hit, but so do most offenses. The offense is less productive, but still just inside the top 10 in the NFL. The defense, however, goes from being the third-best in the NFL to a below-average unit, ranked 19th in EPA per play allowed. The difference in defensive EPA per play allowed on the road compared to at home is the fifth-largest in the league, with only the Browns, Raiders, Dolphins, and Giants having a larger disparity.

Digging deeper, one might wonder if the struggles on the road come down more to the pass defense or the run defense. And as you might have guessed after watching the disaster in Buffalo, the run defense takes the bigger hit during road games.

The thing about the run defense is that there are instances where the Cowboys have been extremely successful. As Jake noted on Monday, they’re middle of the pack in terms of EPA per play allowed on the ground this season—a rather confounding stat on the surface given the glaring holes that have been exposed at times. But much of it comes down to the tale of two Cowboys: the home vs. road split. The Cowboys go from allowing 3.4 yards per carry at home (third- best in the NFL) to allowing 4.7 yards per carry on the road (26th-best). And it’s not just the road blowouts that are affecting this. Both the Panthers (whom the Cowboys beat) and the Cardinals averaged 5.1 yards per carry from their running backs, and that came in entirely different game scripts. The run defense just gets really homesick.

Offensively, the most glaring difference between the home and road versions of the Cowboys comes on the passing side.

While the rushing offense is essentially unchanged, the passing offense has the largest discrepancy in the NFL between its home and road editions. The rushing attack is what has kept the team in the top 10 in offensive efficiency even on the road. The passing game goes from an absolute buzzsaw at home to thoroughly mediocre on the road. Dak Prescott’s yards per attempt drops from 8.4 at home (fifth in the NFL) to 6.3 on the road (22nd).

There’s a reason the Cowboys are undefeated at home while sporting a sub-.500 record on the road. The biggest drivers behind their poor road performance are the porous run defense and a mortal passing offense. They’ll need to figure out how to get past these flaws for their two remaining road games at Miami and Washington, or this season might end the way too many others have: with another early playoff loss away from Dallas. 

Author

Dan Morse

Dan Morse

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Dan covers the Cowboys for StrongSide. He is a Pacific Northwest native & self-described nerd who has been covering the…
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