Warning: Cannot modify header information - headers already sent by (output started at /home/content/85/8979285/html/wp-includes/post-thumbnail-template.php:1) in /home/content/85/8979285/html/wp-content/plugins/wp-super-cache/wp-cache-phase2.php on line 62
advanced football stats | The DC Times

The DC Times

A New Way to Look at the Cowboys, NFL, and Fantasy Football

By

Why stats show Dallas Cowboys will make playoffs

Jonathan Bales

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.

Dallas Cowboys Times is on Twitter.

Subscribe to our free e-mail updates.

By

Are Cowboys’ Play-action Passes Too Predictable?

By Jonathan Bales

A few weeks ago, I published five wacky stats from our 2009 Cowboys Play Database.  The first stat in that post dealt with play-action passes:

  • The Cowboys ran only four (FOUR!) play-action passes all season with 1-4 yards-to-go.

The number of plays on the season in that range: 132. Thus, Dallas ran play-action on just 3.03% of plays in situations with just 1-4 yards to go for a first down (situations with a legitimate threat of a run). I wouldn’t call myself an offensive mastermind, but that just doesn’t seem efficient.

With 10 yards remaining, however, the Cowboys dialed up 54 play-action passes (40.90% of all play-action passes came on this ‘distance-to-go’), making it the most frequent ‘distance-to-go’ for all play-action passes (relative to the number of overall plays from that distance).

The peculiarity of these numbers pushed me to research the Cowboys’ 2009 play-action passes a bit more in-depth.  Before I continue, I must note that I made a mistake in that last post (above).  The Cowboys did run 54 play-action passes with exactly 10 yards-to-go, but that number represents 59.3 percent of the total play-action passes, not 40.9 percent.

Nonetheless, the Cowboys ran so few play-action passes in short yardage situations that they actually ran one more play-action pass (five total) with 20+ yards-to-go than with 1, 2, 3 or 4 yards-to-go.  Like I mentioned above, the offense ran a play-action pass on just four of 132 plays (3.03 percent) with 1-4 yards-to-go.  The Cowboys were in situations with 20+ yards-to-go 100 less times–32 total–yet still ran one more play-action pass (the 15.6 percent play-action pass rate in this range is five times that in the 1-4 yard range).

I could be wrong, but defenses seem a bit more likely to jump up on play-action when there is a legitimate threat of run (as opposed to 20+ yards-to-go).

Not only did the offense run only four play-action passes with 1-4 yards to go, but they also ran just 18 play-action passes with less than 10 yards left for a 1st down.  Thus, just 19.8 percent of play-action passes came with less than 10 yards-to-go.

As I pointed out in a previous study on play-action passes (which I highly recommend), the Cowboys were not particularly successful (or terrible) with their play-action passes last season.  They averaged just 0.2 more yards-per-attempt on them as compared to regular passes, but they also yielded more sacks. The situations in which the Cowboys ran play-action passes are likely a major factor in their mediocre numbers.

Of course, two other statistics regarding play-action passes contributed to the offense’s lukewarm success when implementing them, both of which I addressed before.  The first has to do with a lack of downfield pass attempts:

Of the 83 playaction passes, only four, FOUR, were attempts of 20 yards or more. That is 4.8 percent of all pass plays. In comparison, the Cowboys threw the ball downfield 20 yards or more on 46 of the other 467 attempts, or 9.9 percent of all passes.

**Note that the 83 play-action passes mentioned above and in the previous article are non-sack plays.  There were eight sacks on play-action passing plays, adding up to the 91 total play-action passes.

One of the major reasons the Cowboys only attempted a pass downfield on 4.8 percent of all play-action passes was because of the high rate of screen passes:

The most shocking statistic of all, however, is the dramatic increase of screen passes used during plays when the Cowboys showed playaction. According to our film study, Dallas ran screen passes on 33 of their 467 non-playaction passes (7.1 percent). That screen rate more than tripled on playaction passes to 22.9 percent (19 of 83 passes).

While the increased rate of screen attempts during playaction passes may or may not contribute to the relatively low overall playaction pass average, it surely did nothing to reverse the perception of Jason Garrett as a predictable playcaller.

This ‘predictable’ label is perpetuated by the high percentage of playaction passes which were thrown to the same area of the field. Of the 83 passes, 53, or 63.9 percent, were to the right side of the field (compared to just 37.0 percent on other passes).

Ultimately, we would rate the Cowboys’ 2009 play-action attack as average.  One would expect a higher yards-per-attempt on play-action passes (due to the situations in which they are generally run), but the Cowboys averaged just 0.2 yards more per pass on play-action passes as compared to all other pass attempts.

However, the Cowboys threw the ball downfield (20 yards or more) just four times on play-action passes.  Meanwhile, they attempted screen passes following a play-action look at over three times the normal rate.  These factors surely contributed to the relatively low play-action pass average.

One final note

The Cowboys did have success with play-action passes out of one formation in particular:  “Ace.”  I’ve spoken before about why the ‘Boys should throw more out of “Ace” and other “running” formations.

Of the 29 total plays out of “Ace” formation, 18 (62.1 percent) were play-action passes. This may be a bit high, but Dallas did average 10.3 yards-per-attempt on the plays.  Of course, everything seemed to work out of “Ace”–the Cowboys averaged 14.3 yards-per-attempt on non-playaction passes out of the formation.

By

Dallas Cowboys 2009 Offensive Player Efficiency Comparisons

Last week, a reader suggested we perform a value-based statistical analysis (similar to our 2009 Player Grades) which could be used to determine the worth of one player over another.  For example, how much better would the Cowboys be if Felix Jones played every snap at running back (disregarding fatigue)?  How costly would an injury to Jason Witten be?  Essentially, how much does each player contribute to a win?

This task is easier said than done (and since it isn’t even particularly easily said, it sure isn’t easy to do).  As the reader points out, one would have to “normalize” the conditions outside of the player to determine his true worth.  This is rather easy to do (relatively speaking) in a sport like baseball where the circumstances are basically always the same.

In football, though, no two plays are ever really identical.  Statistical comparisons among players on different teams are rather pointless, as the nature of each player’s system plays an incredible role in his statistical capabilities.

Nonetheless, there have been some attempts to “normalize” outside factors and assign an objective value to players.  In fact, we are in the process of making such an attempt right now.  Until then, we wanted to take a look at the values of Cowboys players gathered by some other leading football statistics gurus (and compare them to our own 2009 Player Rankings).

One such source (and perhaps the most well-known) is Football Outsiders.  The primary FO statistic with which we are concerned is DVOA, or Defense-adjusted Value Over Average.  FO describes DVOA as “representing value, per play, over an average player at the same position in the same game situations.”

DVOA is an excellent statistic to use to compare with our own player rankings, as both represent efficiency, not overall value.  For example, Roy Williams had a greater overall value to the offense than Kevin Ogletree in 2009, but most would argue Ogletree was more efficient during his snaps.

Another source of efficiency-based value rankings is Advanced NFL Stats–a site we refer you to a lot.  Advanced NFL Stats implements a statistic called Expected Points Added.  We’ve spoken about ‘expected points’ in the past, and ANS talks about it here.

In short, EP (expected points) is the value of a certain situation in football.  EPA (expected points added) is the difference between one situation and another.  If the Cowboys have a 1st and 10 at their own 30-yard line, for example, the EP of that situation is +1.0 point, i.e. on average, they can expect one point from that drive.  If Miles Austin catches a pass for 50 yards, the Cowboys’ EP shoots up to +4.0 (the expected points of a 1st and 10 at the opponent’s 20-yard line).  Thus, the EPA for that play is +3.0.

We are concerned with EPA/play–the amount of expected points a player adds to his team’s point total per play.

A final source for efficiency-based values is Pro Football Focus.  PFF is different from FO and ANS in that they do not necessary use the outcomes of plays to formulate rankings.  Instead, they break down each play and assign values based on their interpretation of how well each player performed his job on that play.  You can read more about their methodology here.

It is important to note that all three sites use a value of “0” as a baseline for average play.  Players in the negative are worse than average, and players with positive values are better than average for DVOA, EPA, and PFF’s values.

Click to enlarge.

The chart above displays the rankings and values for the Cowboys offense from all three sites (Football Outsiders, Advanced NFL Stats, and Pro Football Focus), along with our own grades.  A few notes before we analyze the data:

  • NR=Not Rated (likely due to insufficient sample size)
  • The statistics circled in blue are a player’s highest rating; those in red are his lowest.
  • Comparisons among players at different positions are meaningless due to the nature of the data.

Observations

  • Only two players, Martellus Bennett and Flozell Adams, were unanimously voted as “below average.”

Shockingly, ANS rated Roy Williams as slightly above average.  We love Williams’ attitude right now, but we couldn’t disagree more about his 2009 play.

  • Tony Romo’s highest rating (from FO) put him at just 7th among all quarterbacks.  PFF had him all the way at 15th.

We had Romo rated as the 7th-best quarterback in the NFL in our 2010 Starting Quarterback Power Rankings.  We would have ranked his 2009 play, though, as top-five.

  • It’s unanimous: Felix Jones is one of the NFL’s most efficient running backs.  He was ranked 5th, 6th, and 9th, respectively.

Jones’ lowest grade would actually probably come from us.  He has a long way to go to prove he can hold up over an entire season, but as far as efficiency, he’s one of the league’s best.  We provided him a B+ in short-yardage running, an A in overall running, a B in receiving, and a B in pass protection.

  • Two out our three sources agree with us that Barber was about average last season.  FO ranked him as a top 15 back.  Meanwhile, Tashard Choice checked in with a higher efficiency rating than Jones from two of the sites.

We rated Barber as an average running back in 2009 (77.2 percent).  We were also very high on Choice, rating him just 2.5 percentage points behind Jones.  Choice would have ranked as one of the league’s top running backs on Football Outsiders and Advanced NFL Stats had he played more snaps.

  • Jason Witten was ranked all the way from the league’s top tight end to No. 11.

Witten was the No. 1 tight end in our NFL Tight End Rankings.  There’s simply no doubt about it.

  • Opinions on Deon Anderson varied from slightly below average to the league’s 6th-best fullback.

We tend to agree with the latter.  The Cowboys averaged nearly two yards more per rush with Anderson in the game (as compared to John Phillips) and .2 yards more per pass.  Click here to see our in-depth study on Anderson’s 2009 play.

  • Miles Austin has arrived.  He was rated from 5th to 9th.

We gave Austin the third-highest grade of any Cowboy due to his low 2.2 percent drop rate and incredible 10.4 yards-per-attempt.

  • Ratings of both Patrick Crayton and Roy Williams varied.

Two of the three sources had Crayton as a top 16 receiver (in terms of efficiency).  Williams wasn’t high on anyone’s list, but PFF had him ranked all the way down at No. 100.

  • PFF was the only site to rank individual linemen, but their ratings fell in line with ours.

We were a bit higher on Leonard Davis and Andre Gurode and slightly lower on Kyle Kosier (who they listed as the Cowboys’ top lineman last season).  We gave Davis and Gurode “A-” grades and Kosier a “B.”  All three linemen made our list of Dallas’ top 15 overall players last season.

Conclusion

There is obviously quite a bit of work left to be completed in the area of advanced football statistics, particularly objective efficiency rankings.  Still, the difficulty of the task is no reason to concede.  The more we learn which statistics contribute to a team’s success (and how much), the closer we will be to “normalizing” subjective factors in an attempt to acquire objective player ratings.

Up Next: 2009 Defensive Player Efficiency Comparisons