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Five Reasons the Dallas Cowboys Will Win the NFC East in 2011

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Jonathan Bales

The title is self-explanatory, so let’s dive right in. . .

5.  Jason Garrett is improving as a play-caller.

There is no doubt that Garrett’s play-calling can become extremely predictable at times.  I’ve already shown how Garrett’s 2010 playaction pass calls and lack of counters hurt the team in 2010, and I’ve discussed the “Double Tight Strong” play-calling ad nauseam.

But Garrett also improved in a number of areas last season.  The Cowboys ran less draw plays, used fewer motions, ran weak side more frequently, became less predictable on second down, and were more efficient on initial drives–all areas of concern heading into the season, and all areas in which Garrett excelled.

As I wrote in my USA Today article on why Garrett is the right man for the Cowboys’ head coaching job, “It isn’t what Garrett is that should have the Cowboys and their fans so excited, but rather what he will be.  He’s young.  He’s aggressive.  He’s confident.”  Most importantly, he’s adaptable–it is Garrett’s ability to evolve which will have the Cowboys thriving sooner rather than later.

4.  The Cowboys were slightly “unlucky” in 2010.

In my site bio, I wrote:

As a self-proclaimed “numbers guy,” I have always been fascinated by the way mathematics and statistics, if used properly, can thoroughly explain seemingly complex phenomena.  Like the motion of the planets or the path of an ant, I truly believe football can be perfectly represented by numbers.

One formula that has always intrigued me is Pythagorean Win Expectation.  Like many of the stats I use, it originated in baseball.  When adapted to football, the formula predicts the number of wins a team “should” have given their points scored and allowed.  Pythagorean Win Expectation is a far superior tool in forecasting a team’s future record than even their past record.  This is because it takes “luck” out of the equation.

In football, the formula is PF^2.37/(PF^2.37 + PA^2.37).  Why an exponent of 2.37?  I’ll take the pragmatic stance and say “because it works.”  There’s nothing “magical” about 2.37–it simply has been proven more effective at predicting future records than 2.00 or 2.50, that’s all.

When we calculate the 2010 Cowboys’ Pythagorean Win Expectation based on their points scored and yielded, we see that they “should have” had a win percentage of .440–equivalent to 7.04 wins.  This isn’t significantly superior to the six wins they recorded, but it’s still interesting to know the team’s six total wins isn’t perfectly representative of how they played.

3.  Rob Ryan’s innovative defensive schemes will dramatically alter the Cowboys’ defensive efficiency.

A few weeks ago, I detailed how Ryan’s schemes will affect the Cowboys’ defensive success in 2011.  In that post, I was particularly interested in Ryan’s “Nickel” and “Psycho” fronts (below).

Nickel Front

Psycho Front

I love these concepts because they implement a defense’s premiere pass-rushers.  In a game that is creeping toward a 70 percent pass rate, these may very well be the alignments of the future.

In addition to unique alignments, Ryan figures to bring more zone blitzes to Dallas this season.  This should allow the defense to apply more pressure without becoming extremely vulnerable in the secondary.

2.  Tony Romo will be back and better than ever.

Despite “poor” play in 2010, the quarterback was still on pace for a career-high 69.5 percent completion percentage, and his 94.5 passer rating was right on par with his career average.  That passer rating came in spite of a pedestrian 11:7 touchdown-to-interception ratio–one of the reasons I provided him with a “B” in my 2010 Quarterback Grades.

To excel in 2011, Romo will have to improve in non-blitz situations.  My recent study on Romo vs. the blitz suggested that he is a premiere quarterback in the face of pressure, but just average when teams sit back in coverage.

1.  The pressure is off.

The Cowboys have played notoriously poor in high-pressure situations.  Last year, they entered the season as the favorite to win the entire NFC and participate in a “home” Super Bowl.  The pressure clearly got to them.

This season, expectations are low.  The ‘Boys have plenty to prove.  Are they simply a collection of talented football players, or are they an elite team?  They should come out firing with their backs against the wall and nothing to lose.

Nonetheless, at some point, this team will need to learn to win when they are supposed to win.  The underdog role will eventually wear off.  Will the Cowboys fold under the pressure or finally live up to their potential?  For the reasons I’ve listed above, I believe it will be the latter.

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9 Responses to Five Reasons the Dallas Cowboys Will Win the NFC East in 2011

  1. bW says:

    for number 4…can that equation be used to predict future wins/losses? 
    its seems that its only good to use once the games have been played because you need to know what they scored and what they allowed right?  at that point it seems kind of useless since by then you know if they won or lost. 
    I guess I’m wondering how practically you can use it now…
    Is it used in  a scenario where…say they have played 4 games into the season and then from that data you can speculate how many more games they should win?

    BTW, love your “because it works” line…had me laughing.  My curiosity wants to know why it works but I appreciate you not going into too much detail explaining why.  If I really need to know I’ll look it up haha..

    number 1, I’m not so sure I agree with. I’m sure there was pressure and that can affect players to a small degree in maybe they didn’t study/practice with as much attention to detail but Alan Ball sucked because he is just a terrible safety not because the Boys were supposed to be a SB contender.
    Columbo sucked because his body seems to be on a sharp decline, not because of SB pressure.
    etc etc etc.

    The other points I totally agree…and hope you are correct. 

  2. Scott says:

    yes indeedy sir, i do agree!

  3. bW–Excellent question concerning the PWE. Even though you need to know past results to determine how many games a team “should have” won, you can use it as a basis for predictions. If a team gets REALLY unlucky one season, going 6-10 despite possessing a point differential that “should have” put them at, say, 10-6…that is valuable information in making predictions. I actually use it A LOT when making my own predictions. It’s actually much more valuable to know what a team’s record would have been if luck wasn’t a factor than knowing what their actual record was. So while you can’t determine Pythagorean wins beforehand, you CAN use that information as a tool for predictions.

  4. moses says:

    The team’s winning would also depend on personnel changes and coaching changes. We see it baseball where they will load up for a World Series run and dismantle afterwards.

    I would imagine that team personnel would also be a bit of a factor and the coaching staff. The biggest question is whether Ryan will have enough time to get the defensive system put together before the season starts. If the lock out happens and football isn’t resumed until late August, I think it will be the Steelers, and Packers that would be favorites. They are veteran teams that don’t expect a lot of changes in personnel or scheme.

    Someone pointed out that if the season is shortened by the lockout, the Redskins would be the favorite. They have won the last 2 lockout/strike shortened seasons

  5. Tyrone Jenkins says:

    One point of note wrt the PWE – Dallas was a 5 and 11 team last year (even though their record was 6-10). Their last game vs. the Eagles was a 1 pt victory against a team that had nothing more to play for and didn’t play their key people. The PWE doesn’t account for situations where the opponent is “less than optimal” for reasons other than injury like the case w/ the Eagles. Thus, when you factor in points for and against for that one particular game, it is skewed (if you go w/ an assumption that the Eagles would have scored more points had Vick and others played the full game). So, I Iike your application but just wanted to highlight one of the instances which isn’t taken into consideration.

    Second, I think one HUGE reason Dallas will have an increased chance of winning the NFC East (and therefore have a better win – loss record) that wasn’t mentioned will be due to schedule. Last year, Dallas played all of the NFC North teams (4 games), all of the AFC South teams (4 games) , the 1st place team from the previous year of the NFC West (Az) and the 1st place teams from the previous year of the NFC South (NO). They lost both games. If the scheduling criteria for next year is the same as last year, Dallas’ 2 out of conference games within the division will be against the lower placed teams (I’m not sure if Dallas finished 3rd or 4th in the NFC East as both they and Washington had the same record and their record vs them was 1-1 of which they lost by 6 and won by 3. They DID have a better in division win pct and everywhere I look, it has Dallas as the 3rd place team so I’ll go w/ that). Not saying this will be the case, but if they again, were to play 1 team from the NFC West and NFC South, they’d play the 49ers and Buccaneers where they shold go at least 1-1 against (and maybe even 2-0).

  6. Tyrone–Point taken…overall PWE is a BETTER tool for predicting future wins than past wins, but it isn’t nearly perfect. It’s simply a guide that can tell you the general amount of “luck” a team garnered. Over the course of a season, it evens out pretty well. Still, it has a FAR better application in baseball, where the sample size of games is equal to 10 NFL seasons–one of the reasons stats really do mean SO much in baseball.

    Awesome point about the schedule as well. Yes, Dallas will play the 3rd place teams..I would think a 2-0 record vs SF and TB is within reach. That can be a big difference at the end of the season…9-7 vs 11-5, perhaps.

  7. Vince_Grey says:

    For all our other issues and concerns, the number one thing I feel that needs to be corrected is the Cowboys needs a major injection of stones.

    To translate, this team is mentally soft, which means it’s physically soft as well. More than anything else, I’m hoping Garrett comes in with a real Jimmy Johnson style training camp to knock some of the wussy out of this squad.

    If that happens, and Ryan really fires up the defense, the other issues may not be all that detrimental, fixed or not.

    OTOH, if this team stays “soft” then it’s doomed to fail in the playoffs no matter what plays are called and what positions get upgraded.

    Of course, this damned strike/lockout crap will probably screw up all those plans. Sometimes I feel like all the Cowboys do is take one step forward and one step back regardless.

  8. JJ says:

    JB – solid list. I’m hoping the schedule (and who really ever knows) makes it easier (Tyrone already touched on this) and that an infusion of talent will be another addition to the list.

    Vince – love the “stones” comment. I often feel that pieces must fit. You don’t put a New Yorker to run Microsoft and you don’t put a former cheerleader to be a NFL Analyst,. The point is that I never felt comfortable with “Aw Shucks” Phillips as the leader of America’s team. To me it’s not just stones but passion…having Ryan get on them when they do dumb things and pat them on the butt when they achieve. The team was “blah” and bland and reflected their head coach. I not only hope to see “fire” but players who fit that philosophy.

  9. Thanks JJ. I think the addition of the schedule to this list would make a lot of sense. Two games might seem inconsequential, but they are huge at the end of the year (and “easy” wins can add confidence which can carry into future contests).

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