Sportsbooks Offer Cowboys at 8.5 Wins; Pick Under
The Cowboys came into 2017 with hopes of bringing a 6th Super Bowl ring to Dallas, the first in over 20 years. They had won 13 games in 2016, despite losing franchise quarterback Tony Romo to an injury before any football had been played. Fourth round rookie Dak Prescott took over for Romo, and 4th overall pick Ezekiel Elliott became the focal point of the offense running behind the league’s best offensive line. The Sportsbooks had somewhat lower expectations of the ’17 Cowboys, setting the win total over/under at 9½. The Book’s proved to have the right expectation, as 2017 brought injuries, suspensions, and regression by Prescott and Dallas managed only 9 wins.
Despite Cowboys fans eternal optimism, 2018 sees bookmakers lowering the over/under for Cowboys wins to 8½, with a slight premium to play Over. Here are 3 reasons why under 8 ½ at even money is the play.
Sportsbooks have begun to release their best bonuses for football 2018.
The Cowboys offense was not the same well-oiled machine in 2017 as it was in 2016, especially the second half of 2017. The 2016 offense scored 421 points while averaging 6.0 yards per play, compared to 354 points and 5.3 ypp in 2017. Other statistics such as time of possession, red zone scoring percentage and first downs were all down significantly. But the most troublesome 2017 regression was 30 less passing yards per game. Dak Prescott played well enough in 2016 to keep Tony Romo on the bench, but in 2017, he was a mediocre passer that couldn’t put the team on his back and win games. Prescott managed to exceed 200 yards only twice in the final 8 games of the season, throwing 9 interceptions during that stretch.
Prescott will look to improve his performance in 2018 but will be throwing to a sub-par receiving crew. Dez Bryant was cut in May after the worst season of his career, and Allen Hurns will step in to be the new #1. Hurns was #4 in Jacksonville last year, catching only 39 passes. Terrence Williams will return to play opposite Hurns, but the 53 passes he caught in 2017 was the high of his 5 year career. Cole Beasley, journeymen Deonte Thompson and 3rd round rookie Michael Gallup will complete the receiver group. Jason Witten retired after spending what seemed like 48 years as the Cowboy tight end. He was the proverbial security blanket for Prescott catching 63 passes and 5 TDs in 2017. Geoff Swaim appears to be the heir apparent at tight end. He caught 100% of his 2 targets last year. In total, these receivers caught 168 passes last year for 8 touchdowns. The Cowboys front office has not put Prescott in position to succeed, and he proved last year he is not a quarterback that can elevate the play of his teammates, at least not yet.
Elliott should be available for all 16 games this year, and the Cowboys will try to go back to the 2016 game script of running the ball and controlling the clock. The offensive line includes possibly the best Tackle, Guard and Center in the league but the other 2 spots have shown some weakness. La’el Collins has not developed into the premier player he was forecasted to be, and 2nd round pick Conner Williams will take over at left guard. Left Tackle Tyron Smith has struggled with injuries the last 2 years. The Cowboys are 3-3 in games he has missed during those years. If Smith (or any of the offensive linemen) were to miss significant time, the offensive struggles would grow exponentially.
There is an NFL equation: Running the ball + Elite defense = Winning …although it is not very common in today’s pass happy NFL. The Jaguars did it last year, the Cowboys did it in 2016, and the Seahwawks have won multiple division titles with this model. But the 2018 Cowboys defense should not be expected to be elite. The 2017 Cowboys finished a pedestrian 14th in the league in points per game but were in the top half in rushing defense. But the passing defense is the team’s weak link. Last year’s defense allowed the 5th worst completion percentage to opposing quarterbacks, was 24th in the league with only 10 interceptions and 16th in the league with 38 sacks. The weak passing defense allowed 28 passing touchdowns (26th in the league) and was the leading cause of the Cowboys being the 4th worst defense at stopping offenses on 3rd down.
Demarcus Lawrence surprised the league last year with 14.5 sacks, after totaling only 9 in his first 3 years. David Irving had 7 sacks in just 8 games but will be suspended for the first 4 games of 2018. Defensive Coordinator Rod Marinelli prefers to rush 4 and drop 7 into his zone scheme, but it is not likely the front 4 can create enough pressure to disrupt opposing QBs. This will put extra burden on the back 7, which was not very good in 2017, and has not been improved moving into 2018. The stats above make the case that opposing offensive coordinators will be looking to take advantage of the Dallas secondary, and will often be successful.
The other concern of the Cowboys stop unit is the health of LB Sean Lee. Lee missed 5 games last year with hamstring injuries and has yet to play 16 games in any season. He will be 32 when week 1 rolls around. The Cowboys were 1-4 in games without Lee last year, allowing their opponents 30 points per contest. Lee battled hamstring issues in ’17, but also has concussion history. Based on Lee’s history, it is reasonable to assume he will miss time this year, and the Cowboys will be fighting an uphill battle in those games.
The NFC East will face both NFC and AFC South divisions. The NFC South has 3 teams with legitimate NFC Championship aspirations, and the Bucs could easily be a surprise contender. The other common characteristic of these teams is they have elite quarterbacks and passing games. I don’t see the Cowboy defense slowing down Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, or even Jameis Winston, and I don’t see Dak Prescott being able to go toe to toe with these guys. The AFC South will also be challenging, especially if Andrew Luck returns to form, and Deshaun Watson plays anywhere close to the level he did last year before tearing his ACL. The division games in the NFC East are always competitive, so it’s doubtful the Cowboys can repeat last years performance of winning 5 of those games. The 2 other games for the Cowboys are at Seattle and home against the Lions.
The first 8 games of the Cowboys slate include home games against the Giants, Lions, Jags and Titans, and road games against the Panthers, Seahawks, Texans and Redskins. This team could easily open 2-6 and be all but out of the playoff race before their schedule gets somewhat easier towards the end of the year.
Cowboys under 8½ wins is the play. This team has too many weaknesses and too tough of a schedule to come away with 9 wins.