A Shallow Dive into the 2021 North Queensland Cowboys

The North Queensland Cowboys finished in second last place, pipped by arch rivals – remember when that was a thing? – the Brisbane Broncos in the final round. With a 7-17 record, the Cowboys finished with the worst defence in the NRL, conceding 748 points in 24 games. That works out to 31.2 points conceded per game. Keen eyed observers would compare this to the rate at which the 2020 Brisbane Broncos leaked points, which was also 31.2 points per game and was considered an historically bad performance (13th worst in the NRL era), and use that to draw the conclusion that the Cowboys were lucky to share a league with the 2021 Bulldogs.

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

The actual names in the North Queensland roster should inspire some hope… Having the best forward and the once best winger in the game should do that. Payten demonstrated his chops last year… By that logic, under a new dynamic coach, one able to get the best out his men, should see the team out-perform expectations.

The Cowboys will have to push themselves to make the top eight but I am far from ruling it out. Taumalolo lost a little of his punch last season… The revival begins there, ably assisted by Francis Molo and needing more effort or bigger seasons out of Jordan McLean, Josh McGuire and Tom Gilbert. After that, some combination of Drinkwater, Morgan and Clifford needs to gel, even though Clifford is departing for Newcastle next season. Points will follow with even the most dubious outside backs in that scenario and a finals appearance thereafter.

Then again, if it were that easy, everyone would do it.

The logic is flawless, provided Todd Payten is in fact the dynamic, man manager coach that I had convinced myself he was but, it turns out, probably isn’t. I suspect this was a result of going along with the groupthink narrative instead of listening to my internal critic, although you can see my cowardly attempt at an each way bet in the digital ink.

Michael Morgan retired, which didn’t help. Jason Taumalolo’s hands suddenly appear to be made of egg shell, with multiple hand injuries sidelining the Pacific Dally Messenger this year. Jake Clifford was let go early and replaced by the inferior Tom Dearden. The pack, and/or maybe the coach, either refused to or were unable to get to grips with the new game and the results suffered for it. Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow looks better than he did last year and there are other young guys that can follow his lead.

What happened

To calculate a proxy for coaching performance, we look at the gap between the pre-season projected TPR and the actual TPR of each player in the team. Payten’s Cowboys sit about mid-field, which seems fine until you look at the company he’s keeping.

Slightly above Payten are Kevin Walters, not a man who carries a special reputation, Josh Hannay, mostly with some John Morris thrown in, and Adam O’Brien, who just coached a team to seventh place with an abysmal attack (that may be considered good coaching, depending on your perspective). Payten is a clear step behind the coaches we’d consider in the top tier and, for some reason, the Titans’ Justin Holbrook. Importantly, he’s a clear step ahead of the disasters currently unfolding at the Bulldogs, Warriors and Tigers. The jury will remain out on Payten for the time being but he will need results next year to keep his job.

Meanwhile, the Cowboys’ million dollar man for a million years has returned to his early career form. While the new rules haven’t suited him, Payten has insisted on shuffling him around and changing his role despite plenty of evidence as to how Taumalolo should be optimally used, something even Paul Green managed to work out. The one-time career WARG leader is now contributing 5.7% of the Cowboy’s Wins Above Reserve Grade, down from a peak of 19.1% in 2017. While the Cowboys’ WARG total has grown over that time and Taumalolo missed plenty of games, it’s not fast enough to disguise the decline of Taumalolo’s contribution. Taumalolo had a TPR of .113 in 2013, peaked at .180 in 2017 and has declined to just .110 in 2021. While this is still above average (just), this is despite the league-wide inflation in production thanks to Vlandoball. Todd Payten getting his head wrapped around how to get the most out of Taumalolo will likely be key to his long-term job prospects.

There’s always next year

There sure is. The problem is that the Cowboys look like going around in much the same shape again. The bottom three in 2021 were the same bottom three as in 2020. Whereas the other two members of that illustrious club have made moves to remedy this situation, the Cowboys appear content to not join this arms race.

It’s mildly concerning that while the Broncos sign Adam Reynolds and the Bulldogs sign Matt Burton, the Cowboys see Chad Townsend as an equivalent halfback.

It’s more concerning that the signing of Chad Townsend, confirmed at best to be an average footballer, came with the signing of Tom Dearden, confirmed at best to be a long term project, while still hanging on to Scott Drinkwater. It’s concerning and perplexing.

Such recruitment decisions suggests that perhaps the right hand and the left hand of the Cowboys do not necessarily speak to each other on trifling matters such as spending 800,000 Australian dollars per annum on the services of one Chadwick Townsend while spending a further few hundred thousands of dollars on another halfback that looked like Allan Langer for about three games if you squinted.

If that’s the case, there is very little to hope for moving forward, irrespective of the bona fides of Todd Payten or the structural integrity of Jason Taumalolo’s hands or that Reecce Robson and Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow are pretty handy or that there is a promising cavalry of younger players just over the horizon.

On that note:

Get ready to chalk up another one for the “how could they let him go” brigade. At least there’s always next year.