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Why stats show Dallas Cowboys will make playoffs

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Jonathan Bales

First, let me start by addressing by the fact that I have not, uh, addressed the Cowboys-Lions game.  Over the last couple years, I have not hidden the fact that I am not a “media” source but rather simply a Cowboys fan with a love for statistical analysis and a drive to study the ‘Boys in as much depth as possible.  When they lose, the cold, analytical side with which I tend to run this site disappears.  During the most difficult losses, I find that my ability to analyze the team in a manner that is both rational and fit for Dallas Cowboys Times is compromised.  At this time, I have just one thing to say about the Cowboys’ loss on Sunday. . .

On 4th and Goal from the half-yard line, Jason Garrett called a play from “Double Tight Right I Right.”  It was a strong side dive.  It got stopped.  The Cowboys lost the game by four points.  While I realize Tony Romo played one of the worst games of his career (not in terms of actual performance, but rather decision-making), the Cowboys will not be an elite football team until this kind of predictability stops.  Garrett thinks his offense should always execute, even if the defense knows what it is coming.

While it is true they “should” perform up to a certain standard, it is impractical to think they will.  There are professionals on the other side of the football, and calling plays is about putting your guys in the proper position to maximize their ability to use their talent and succeed.  Until then, the Cowboys will simply be an underachieving, poorly-coached group of very talented players.  Does Garrett have the potential to succeed?  I think so.  Must he change?  You bet.

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Last year, I wrote an article called “Why stats show Dallas Cowboys will make playoffs” following the team’s 1-3 start.  It didn’t exactly work out as I expected.  Today, I am posting an article called “Why stats show Dallas Cowboys will make playoffs.”  Let’s see how it plays out this year.

Over at Advanced NFL Stats, the Cowboys are currently ranked as the No. 1 team in the NFL.  No. 1!  While I certainly don’t find that ranking to be true, it shows that the Cowboys have at least played well in relation to their 2-2 record.  Remember, record is a rather poor indicator of how teams are performing (fortunately or unfortunately, depending how you view it).  Points are superior, but even they can be misleading.  Through four games, the number of points a team has scored or yielded could differ by as much as 50% or more simply from “luck” (special teams touchdowns, field goals, penalties, and other things which have historically shown to not be repeatable. . .or at least not to a significant degree).

Advanced football analytics show that the statistics which actually correlate best to future wins are not past wins or points, but rather adjusted yards per pass attempt and run success rate (the percentage of runs which increase your expected points on a drive) on both offense and defense.  The former certainly weighs more heavily than the latter, but run success rate is important too.  Actually, the portion of a team’s runs which are “successful” correlates for more strongly to winning than attempts or yards-per-carry.

According to the numbers, the Cowboys have the eighth-worst running success rate in the NFL.  That matches up well with other statistics, as Dallas simply hasn’t been able to get much going on the ground, at least not consistently.  So how is the team so highly-rated in terms of their win probability?  They have been lights out in each other category.  No team is running on Dallas, succeeding just 34% of the time–worst in the NFL (making Dallas the best, obviously).  Opposing offenses also haven’t been able to throw, racking up just 5.7 adjusted yards per attempt–making Dallas the eighth-most efficient passing defense.  On offense, Romo & Co. have generated 7.8 adjusted yards per attempt, ranking sixth in the league.

Certainly factors other than running and passing efficiency go into winning football games, but these statistics correlate better than any others we have.  Plus, things like turnovers, sacks, play-calling and so on are all implemented into these statistics (adjusted yards per attempt accounts for the first two, and the numbers are simply a reflection of player talent and play-calling).  The numbers have also given Dallas a 67% win probability, ranking them first in the NFL, and a 55% opponents’ win probability, also good for first (meaning they have played the toughest schedule thus far).  When you add in the fact that teams have actually struggled against the Cowboys (meaning they have played at least one poor game, statistically speaking, out of four), you can see why the numbers point to the Cowboys’ record improving as the season rolls along.

I’ll end this post with a quote from last year’s article on the same topic, altering just the team’s record:

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 2-2, 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 2-2.

For that 2-2 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.

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6 Responses to Why stats show Dallas Cowboys will make playoffs

  1. JJ says:

    JB,

    I couldn’t even come to a site to read reviews until today. I must say that while Romo is getting fried, one wonders why more critique of Garrett (whom I like) has not occurred. Lack of creativity in running game, continuation of short yardage issues and a very inconsistent running game, and of course, up 24 and throwing the ball.

    I do not know if the John Garrett, Hudson Houck or Wade Wilson (I know he doesn’t) help on offensive suggestions but it would sure be great to have an offensive sidekick (ala Sean Payton to Bill Parcells) to assist Garrett on offense.

  2. Derek says:

    Thanks for writing this, JB. I agree with JJ; it’s hard for us to read anything after these losses, too. So, don’t worry about it.

    First off: what a lovely game the Cowboys were having until Gerald Sensabaugh got smashed by Spencer. I have always hated those sorts of “I’m going to smash the offensive player” plays that really are only dangerous for the other tacklers. Either go purposely for the ball or just wrap up, I say. That play made me immediately think “that could change the momentum” – something as silly as that. And, because the momentum did change, I’ll pretend that it was a premonition.

    I give little blame to Jason Garrett and little blame to Tony Romo for the loss. Yes. Both did things that caused bad results. But I LOVED that Garrett was still calling throws while up 24 points. That is the right mentality. So many times, the conservative approach has cost the Cowboys games.

    The first interception was a poor throw, but Bobby Carpenter made a hell of a play on it. And how did he get into the end zone? What a circus act to watch.

    The second interception was simply a poor route by Robinson, who had had a stellar game to that point. So, I can’t blame him. A receiver should never get beat like that, though. And that run-back shouldn’t have happened either.

    The third interception was all Romo’s fault. I don’t blame the decision, because Witten was wide open and that play would have killed the game. The throw was just plain awful. That throw lost the game – that and Tyron’s unfortunate “bad technique.”

    I was encouraged to hear Garrett defend his choices and to hear Jerry’s assessment. This team is really good. They are fun to watch, and they can win (or lose, apparently) any game. I think they’ll win many more than they lose from here on out.

  3. Mont Seventeen says:

    Sorry but Tyron? Why is it, every year… This teams fan base finds a way to blame a rookie? Tyron had his problems but on that last drive if that’s what you are claiming lost the game is just nuts…

    Romo lost the game… Its that simple. You can make an argument that all of the picks were on Romo. The bad route by Robinson, I would buy that if he didn’t reach out for the ball as far as he could and still not tip it away. Any other time, when Romo makes a pass behind a player, his fans say “he meant to do that”, but not here they blame the WR. Romo is a choker… This is what he does, he figured the game was won, and he lost focus, just like he lost focus on the botched snap in Seattle.

    Back to Robinson… Romo and Robinson haven’t worked together very long, so its on the QB to adjust to the WR until they are familiar with each other. I blame all 3 picks on Romo and its not even close. Say what u want ab Barbie making a play on the first pick, ITS BARBIE! Dude has had no picks in a game, I don’t even think he has had one in practice! Sorry Romo-lovers but if my HS math teacher picked Romo off and it was a great effort by the 55 year old woman, you ppl would be saying she can be the next Jack Ham!

    Ask youself this… How good have the Cowboys been with Romo since the playoff win. Romo has reached his pinnacle, it should be fun watching his support realize it one blown game at a time!

  4. David says:

    Well I can only go by stats. Romo has won one play off game since becoming a starter…period. Jason Garrett is a new head coach. I blame Jerry Jones for a lot of the Cowboys problems. Bill Cowher is still out there not coaching and yet Jones hires a young coach and wants to win. I don’t understand that at all. Cowher built a strong defensive Steelers team that is still doing pretty well today. I am not a big Romo fan, but I think he is better than Ben Rothlisberger and yet Ben has two rings thanks to defense. Those are the facts..

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  6. Mark Watkins says:

    I just don’t get the Romo bashing. How many QB’s out there would you rather have? How many did the Boys have between Aikman and now that were better? Would people rather have Quincy Carter or Drew Bledsoe? There are a lot worse QB’s that have won Super Bowls too. And the choker label is so misused. How many times has Romo coolly driven them downfield to a late win? What Romo is, and it irritates me greatly sometimes, is a risk taker, just like his idol Brett Favre. It took Favre a long time to win a Super Bowl and he didn’t do it until he was surrounded by great talent. That same risk taking mentality has a nice flip side because it allowed Favre and now allows Romo to make some spectacular plays. I agree with JB that the play calling has been a hindrance to Romo at times too. I don’t know what Garrett was thinking with that forward pitch near the goal line yesterday against the Pats. Horrible call and extremely dangerous. I do think that they’ll get their act together and hopefully get healthier. Plus the O-Line should improve as the year goes on. I could still see them making the playoffs or narrowly missing.

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