Focus On: Barry Church

Focus On: Barry Church

Credit: Getty Images

Dallas Cowboys free safety Barry Church (42) celebrates his fourth-quarter interception against Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Matt Barkley (2) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on Sunday, October 20, 2013. Cowboys beat the Eagles, 17-3. (Paul Moseley/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT via Getty Images)

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by JOSEPH URSERY

WFAA Sports

Posted on November 21, 2013 at 8:00 AM

Updated Thursday, Nov 21 at 2:17 AM

The main, overarching problem the Cowboys have had for years is that they're somehow permastuck in the middle.  Not good enough to really raise much of a fuss over, but not bad enough to reset the franchise. They get a lot of good players, but they also get a lot of bad players, and good players get hurt, and good players somehow play like bad players for a long stretch of time, and you end up with 8-8 seasons. 

It's kind of refreshing, in all that, to have a player who's either really good, or really bad. Enter Free Safety Barry Church.

If you were the kind who liked making statistical arguments, you could make a pretty sound statistical argument that Barry Church is one of the best safeties in football. I'll wait while you clean Coke Zero up off your keyboard and or nostrils.

First off, Church is currently leading all safeties in tackles. While that's not exactly a resounding statement to the quality of the Cowboys' defense (a safety leading the league in tackling is kind of the same as a guy in the pit crew leading NASCAR in tire changes- I guess? I have no idea how NASCAR works and I assume changing your tires is bad) it's noteworthy, and it supports the notion Church is a good ground support safety.

Then again, you could also say tackles are like pitchers’ wins, in that they're neat adding stats that display a lot about the game situations a player finds himself in and not so much about the real efforts and contributions of the player above what somebody else could give you. Church probably gets a lot of tackles because the Cowboys' defense is historically bad at football and therefore sees more plays than your average defense. On top of that, the defensive line is composed mainly of guys that are somewhere between Plan D and Plan ZZ-Plural Z Alpha for the Cowboys, so there's lots of opportunities for ball carriers to get into the secondary that shouldn't happen on a good defense, and Mr. Church's tackle total is the beneficiary of those bad football plays.

If you were to say that, then maybe I would point you to Church's Tackle Factor of 1.37, which is third in the league. I'd say that in the hopes you'd find my display impressive and back off to fight another day. You and I both know it's a bluff, though, because that still supports the notion that Church is a guy racking up total numbers without really positively affecting the game- all that does is show that Church is accumulating tackles a much higher rate than you expect a safety to.

That's when I have to quote EPA- Expected Points Added. Church is second in the league among safeties at EPA, at 30.6. EPA is an aggregate, results-based metric, by which I mean it looks at the sum total of the effect a player has had on games.  You can assign a point value to any play, pre-snap, given the down, distance, and location in the field. For instance, first-and-goal on the 1 has an EPA of 6, but third-and-20 at your own 1 is a -2. EPA looks at what a player did, and adds or subtracts based on that. Say the opponents are at midfield, first and 10.  That's a 2.0 EPA. On that play, your free safety causes a fumble, which your team recovers. Now your team has 1st and 10 at the 50, and your team's EPA is 2.0- that play was a 4.0 swing in EPA.

Church has caused three fumbles this year, and has one interception. That, tied up with all the tackles, and 6 passes defended, is what pushes Church's EPA up so high. Those are good things, and that's why the argument exists that Church is one of the best safeties in the NFL this year.

The counterargument is... well... look at him. It's hard to imagine the Cowboys having two actual effective starters in the secondary (and Brandon Carr has been really, really good this year) and also give up approximately 700 yards per game through the air.  It's just so counterintuitive that you can't really get the argument off the ground.

Which leads to two conclusions; since Church can neither be as good as the advanced stats make him look nor as bad as the Cowboy's results and the eye test paint him, he must be pretty average; right in the middle, just like the Cowboys. That's unsatisfying, though, in the same vein as tofurkey just isn't as good as the real thing. I think a more complete truth is that Church has some fantastic instincts, and some excellent physical attributes that would make him an extremely effective player in a defense with an imaginative, innovative coordinator and a group of teammates around him that can make up for his shortcomings. Think Roy Williams, back when he had Darren Woodson telling him what to do.

Of course, do you feel like the Cowboys have an imaginative or innovative defensive coordinator, or teammates around him that have the in-game intelligence and capability to make him for him being somewhat of a freelancer? No. No you don't, I feel comfortable answering that for you.

So, maybe you put up with the missed tackles and the times he's out of position and the poor angles but you get some forced fumbles and some really good tackles and a few other good things, and you hope to escape the middle of the bell curve, but you accept that we're probably here for a long time, and maybe we'll get a few defensive touchdowns out of the deal.

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