Why stats show Dallas Cowboys will make playoffs
Regular readers know I am a stats-nut and I fully believe math always “wins” in the end–the most likely scenarios, given a sufficient sample size, come to fruition the most frequently.
It’s tough to find anything comforting about a 1-3 start (and an upcoming schedule that includes a road contest against a desperate Vikings team, two crucial games against the New York Giants, and trip to Lambeau Field). And as difficult as it may be right now, trust me when I tell you the Cowboys, despite all the penalties and mental errors, are a much better team than their record indicates. In fact, if the Cowboys were to play the exact same games with the exact same quality of play, I’d be confident in saying they’d likely be 2-2 or even 3-1.
But how is that possible? Doesn’t the better football team (on any particular day) always come out the victor? Not at all. You’ve seen games where one team (usually Dallas) dominates the majority of the game, only to lose in the end due to the unfortunate outcome of just a few plays. The Cowboys’ season-opener was a perfect example of that.
Even with the Cowboys’ mediocrity thus far in 2010, they are “unlucky” to be 1-3. Despite the infuriating lackadaisical play, the Cowboys “should be” at least .500.
Need some numbers? Over at NFL Forecast, they’re still declaring the Cowboys to be the (big-time) favorite to win the NFC East. According to their numbers, the ‘Boys have a 51 percent chance of winning the division and a 71 percent chance of making the playoffs in general.
NFL Forecast uses efficiency ratings, not just game outcomes, to determine a team’s chances of succeeding in the future. Remember, good play doesn’t necessarily equate to winning, and there are a ton of statistics that are more representative of a team’s talent than its record.
My buddy Brian Burke at Advanced NFL Stats calculates a team efficiency stat known as “Success Rate”:
SR is only counting up successes and failures, so it excludes the magnitude of play results. The more random types of outcomes, such as turnovers and very long plays are counted only as a single success or failure, no different than a 6 yard gain on first down or a stop on 3rd down. It also considers a successful red zone play no differently than one at midfield.
As I’ve been playing around with SR, I’ve noticed a few things. First, it correlates well with winning. And second, it correlates well with itself, meaning it is relatively stable throughout the season. These are the two attributes we want in a stat for it to be predictive of future outcomes.
A “success” is any play that increased a team’s “expected points,” and a failure is any play that decreases EP. And according to Burke, the Cowboys have been the NFL’s second-most “successful” team in 2010. They are increasing their EP on 49.8 percent of offensive plays–third-best in the league, and on 57.6 percent of defensive plays–fifth-best in the NFL.
Success rate and expected points aren’t just some bogus numbers that have no relation to wins. EP calculations are based on years and years of NFL data collection. How much is a 4th and 3 conversion at your opponent’s 35-yard line “worth”? EP will tell you. Year in and year out, the teams with the highest EPs are among the most successful.
Through only four games, however, the sample size of wins/losses just isn’t large enough to be conclusively indicative of a team’s talent, nor can it be used as a strong barometer for future success.
Think about it. There seems to be a big difference between a 2-2 team and one that is 3-1 (at least emotionally), but what is that difference in reality? Maybe a single play in just one game? A shoestring tackle here, a fingertip catch there.
Still, there are those who will claim that the “should haves” mean nothing–the Cowboys are 1-3, and that’s it. How could they be anything other than their record? While I generally disagree with this assessment, it is true in some sense. The Cowboys’ record may or may not be representative of how they’ll play in the future, but whether it is or not does nothing to alter the fact that they are 1-3.
For that 1-3 record to change for the better, the Cowboys need to disregard the “should haves” and focus on improving today. If they do that, they should find themselves playing into mid-January (at least). The stats never lie.