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Dallas Cowboys Voluntary Workouts: How Important Are They?

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There is some concern over the fact that a few Dallas Cowboys (Miles Austin being the biggest name) are skipping voluntary offseason workouts.  Austin, along with safety Gerald Sensabuagh and (before he signed his tender) defensive end Marcus Spears, is bypassing the workouts over what could only be a contract situation.

However, Tony Romo is not concerned.  Said Romo on Galloway & Co. 103.3 FM, “Miles will be back and around.  It’s like anything, it’s all part of the business side of things that happens once and a while.”

Romo went on to say, “(Austin) does a lot of good things.  He knows what it takes to play at a high level year-in-and-year out.”

A lot of analysts emphasize the importance of these voluntary workouts in building team chemistry.  Super Bowl winners are teams that bleed together in the offseason, they say.

We aren’t buying it.  Sure, championship teams generally have a lot of “team chemistry,” but is the winning truly due to the chemistry, or is the chemistry due to winning?

Now, we aren’t talking about ‘chemistry’ in terms of the cohesiveness of an offensive line, for example.  Surely on-field cohesiveness affects a team’s play.  The playoff loss in Minnesota is a testament to that.

At first glance, Miles look like a stud, but only one of these women is good-looking--can you pick her out? Hint: It's not the one that looks like a 35-year old Hilary Duff.

But locker room chemistry–the type where everyone ‘gets along’?  It simply doesn’t have an affect on winning.  This may be a tough pill to swallow, but the proof is in the pudding.

The illusion lies in the distinction between causation and correlation.  What do championship teams have in common?  They run the ball well, they are well-coached, and they have great chemistry.

Right?  Well, yes. . .but let’s take a closer look at each of those characteristics.

Winning teams run the ball well because they are generally, well, winning.  It is easy to rack up rushing yards when you are up 45-0 in the 3rd quarter.  The ability to run the ball well isn’t necessarily the cause of that score.

‘Well-coached’ teams are generally labeled so ex post facto (after the fact).  Why did the New England Patriots win three Super Bowls in the last decade?  Because they are well-coached of course.  However, would Bill Belichick be labeled a ‘great coach’ had the Pats not won those games?  Maybe, maybe not (note that we don’t think Belichick isn’t a great coach, but simply that the label ‘great coach’ generally comes ex post facto).

Both of these notions–running the ball and having a good coach–are only correlated to winning.  Correlation does not equate to causation. For example, intelligence is rather strongly correlated to shoe size.  Does possessing big feet make you smarter?  Of course not, but people with big feet are generally older, and older people tend to be more intelligent than children (although that is unfortunately not always the case).

Nonetheless, we only notice the presence of these characteristics when it is too late–they have no predictive power.

Team chemistry is completely analogous to the ideas of winning teams possessing good running games and superb coaches.  Labeling a winning team as one with great chemistry has no predictive power.  The team has already won, so how do we know if the winning was due to the chemistry, or vice versa?  Complete your preseason predictions based on which teams have “great chemistry” and you are sure to be disappointed.

Similarly, there are a lot of losing teams with great chemistry–why don’t we hear about them?  Wouldn’t it be something to hear a coach say, “Well you know guys, we went 0-16 and got blown out in every game, but we sure as hell got along well.”

The correlation between winning and team chemistry is not one that is due to causation. So don’t fret about the absence of your #1 wide receiver, Cowboys fans.  As long as he is working out on his own (and we are sure he is), there is really not much to be gained from attending voluntary offseason training sessions.

Besides a chance to see this:


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8 Responses to Dallas Cowboys Voluntary Workouts: How Important Are They?

  1. john coleman says:

    If a person and their preparation were in question then they need to be there. As far a chemistry goes, as long as a person is not dividing the team, it is irrelevant. What matters is when you show up to work, everybody is focused on doing the job. I will say that putting individual accolades aside for the good of the team is necessary.

  2. john coleman says:

    Also in regards to running the ball. One factor to consider is that running the ball leads to more rest for your defense and less for theirs. So it is not the impact of running on the offense, but on the defense.

  3. Good points. Now, of course you want your WR’s and QB to develop that on-field chemistry, but not too much of that can be developed at these workouts in all honesty.

    To you point about running the ball: you are right that running can help a team–I don’t disregard that. I simply meant to say that the ‘rushing yards-to-wins’ correlation is not nearly as strong as people may think (or as what SEEMS obvious), just like winning and team chemistry.

  4. David Mark says:

    I ‘m a big fan of this web site and love how the author tries to quantify his arguments using mathematical (statistical) methodologies. But I think this article’s argument is unusually weak. Why? Because it is assuming its 3 main variables are quantifiable/measurable. How do you quantify team chemistry? And how can you control the probably 100 other variables associated with winning (dependent variable) to see if team chemistry (independent variable) has a causal effect or is correlated in some way? Likewise with coaching. Belichick probably is a great coach, but all great head coaches also need great assistants and great team talent. How do you quantify/measure great head coaches other than with historical data–which may not be applicable given annual coaching personnel turnover in the NFL? In fact, Austin may really be hurting his team by missing workouts. But this article did nothing to prove or disprove that hypothesis.

  5. Hey David,
    Thanks for the comment. If you ever think we messed up..let us know. It will make both of our arguments stronger.

    I see your points. You are right that, due to the multitude of variables that go into winning a football game, isolating just one characteristic of a team to determine its impact on wins is effectively impossible. Football isn’t a controlled experiment.

    However, I think we can still draw meaningful conclusions without an independent/dependent variable. Although ‘causation’ cannot be conclusively proven without a controlled experiment, we can still analyze the ‘strength of correlation’ between two variables and then use reasoning to determine whether that correlation is due to causation or not.

    I don’t want to get too philosophical, but I don’t think we need ‘conclusive’ proof for knowledge or to justify a hypothesis. Simply being the best explanation of a particular phenomenon should suffice.

    Having said that, you raise a valid criticism that team chemistry may not be quantifiable. While we could argue that point all day, I think it is worth noting that, should it truly not be quantifiable, using it as a reason for a team’s success is meaningless. It isn’t that team chemistry isn’t a factor in winning, but rather that we can’t make any meaningful claims about their relationship.

    Overall, great comment. I’d love to hear more from you on this subject and others.

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