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Assessing Pivotal Plays in Cowboys-Giants Week 14 Matchup

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Jonathan Bales

One of my favorite things to do when I watch the Cowboys’ games at home is track the team’s win probability throughout the night using Advanced NFL Stats‘ win probability charts.  Using a model which takes the down-and-distance, score, and time into account, ANS is able to determine the probability of a team winning a game at any point in time.  This information doesn’t stem from estimates, but rather years of NFL data.

It is always fascinating to see how certain plays can influence a team’s chances of winning.  Punts, for example, often result in a fairly significant drop in win probability because giving away possession is generally detrimental to a team.  Near the beginning of games, it takes a huge play to swing win probability in a major way.  A 4th and Goal defensive stop while up six points with 45 minutes to play might result in a big bump in win probability, but that same play would be much larger–perhaps from around 50% to 100%–if the play was the final one of the game.

Using the graph from Sunday night’s game, I thought it would be fun to take a look at which plays affected the Cowboys’ win probability most significantly.  Below, you can see the chart, along with 10 plays (or short sequences) which I have labeled as the most important. . .

CLICK TO ENLARGE

Play 1: 64-yard pass to Hakeem Nicks on 3rd and 7 at NYG 32; 53:44 to play

  • Cowboys’ WP (win probability) drops from 42 to 25 (-17%)

A 17% drop in win probability in the middle of the first quarter is a big one.  This wouldn’t have been much higher even if Nicks scored.  Poor coverage by Alan Ball.

Play 2: 26-yard gain by Felix Jones on 1st and 10 at NYG 42; 48:19 to play

  • Cowboys’ WP jumps from 42 to 52 (+10%)

The touchdown pass to John Phillips put Dallas on top, but Jones and a subsequent defensive holding penalty put the ‘Boys in position to score.

Play 3: Felix Jones fumbles on 1st and 10 and ball recovered by NYG at DAL 14; 31:38 to play

  • Cowboys’ WP drops from 57 to 38 (-19%)

This had the potential to be devastating to Dallas but they made the best of the situation by holding New York to a field goal and kicking one of their own before halftime.

Play 4: 47-yard touchdown pass to Mario Manningham on 3rd and 5 at DAL 47; 19:39 to play

  • Cowboys’ WP drops from 70 to 45 (-25%)

Yielding a 47-yard score on a crucial 3rd down due to a broken coverage is heartbreaking.

Play 5: 74-yard pass to Laurent Robinson on 3rd and 10 at DAL 20; 13:17 to play

  • Cowboys’ WP jumps from 38 to 66 (+28%)

Other than the blocked field goal to end the game, this pass to Robinson was the most important one of the contest for Dallas.

Play 6: 15-yard completion to Mario Manningham on 4th and 3 at DAL 37; 8:24 to play

  • Cowboys’ WP drops from 78 to 56 (-22%)

Here, you can see how game situation affects win probability.  The pass was only 15 yards long, but it came on a crucial 4th and 3 with just over eight minutes left to play.

Play 7: Sean Lee interception on 3rd and 9 at DAL 21; 6:50 to play

  • Cowboys’ WP jumps from 62 to 89 (+27%)

I actually thought this would be more valuable to Dallas, but the fact that it came on a difficult 3rd and 9 (when New York’s chances of converting were low) likely affected the jump in WP.

Play 8: Cowboys’ three-and-out; 2:20 to play

  • Cowboys’ WP drops from 88 to 67 (-21%)

Romo’s infamous incompletion to Austin hurt Dallas in a big way.  If you assume Romo hits that pass 90% of the time and Dallas’ wins 99% of games following a completion, the actual dip in WP would be closer to -31%.

Play 9: Holding on Abram Elam and 18-yard completion to Jake Ballard on 1st and 10 at DAL 19; 1:21 to play

  • Cowboys’ WP drops from 49 to 27 (-22%)

The holding penalty on Elam has been overlooked.  DeMarcus Ware’s offside penalty was also costly, but the full extent of it isn’t factored into the WP chart because the errant snap and loss by the Giants isn’t reflected in the play-by-play.

Play 10: Blocked FG; 0:06 to play

  • Cowboys’ WP drops from 44 to <1 (-43%)

And the Cowboys’ playoff chances drop from potentially around 90% with a win to now around 40% .

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5 Responses to Assessing Pivotal Plays in Cowboys-Giants Week 14 Matchup

  1. Vince_Grey says:

    I suppose this chart is something that’s fun to play with, but in reality it means very little. At the time each of these situations occur, the charts have no clue as to what will occur after that particular play. It’s not until after the game is concluded that you can look back and say, “this was a huge play that might well have decided the game” because a seemingly big play at the time might actually turn out to be little more than a bump in the road.

    If, for instance, Team A comes out and plays simply horrible football, with turnovers, a safety, giving up easy TD’s, and falls behind 23-0, but then Team B rallies and wins going away, say, 49-26, those early plays meant almost nothing.

    BTW, on another point, I see where the DB’s are griping about the scheme maybe being too complicated and the front seven not getting any pass rush.

    The pass rush thing is a valid point, but when I hear defensive backs claiming a scheme is “too complicated”, I’m think, “we must have some really dumb DB’s”. That’s just embarrassing.

    Still, it might behoove Ryan to simply things until we can bring in some smarter and maybe more athletic DB’s next year.

  2. Vince–I agree you won’t conclusively know which players were as meaningful as others until the end of the game, but I don’t think it makes it useless. In the case of the Cowboys, they were at 98% to win at one point on the chart. Those numbers aren’t without meaning, as I’m sure you’d rather have the team in that position (up 12 with six minutes to play and possession of the ball, for example) than tied to start the contest.

    I agree the scheme is NOT too complicated. We often make a huge deal out of how complex NFL schemes can be, and it is true that quarterbacks have a LOT on their plates, but defensive calls, no matter the scheme, are not brain science. The players should know it by now.

  3. Pingback: Dallas Cowboys vs. Tampa Bay Bucs, Week 15: DOs and DON'Ts for Dallas | Dallas Cowboys Times

  4. Vince_Grey says:

    I didn’t say they were useless, but I honestly can’t see any real benefit. On the 98% point, again, that’s up to THAT POINT in the game. It’s what happens after that which determines the outcome, which cannot be factored in beforehand. One or two big plays the other way and that 98% drops like a rock, right?

    Naturally, I’d rather have the team up by 12 and in possession of the ball with five or six minutes left. Doesn’t take any program to figure that one out. I mean, duh, anyone with any football knowledge and an ounce of common sense knows that. I’d more like them to be up by 17-20, even better, 24, but honestly, with the way our defense is playing right now, it would take AT LEAST 24 for me to feel really safe with over five minutes left.

  5. My example was an extreme one of course. But the graphs can also show how WP decreases after punts….4th and 5 at the 40-yard line is better than a 1st and 10 for your opponent at their 10-yard line, for example.

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