2011 Dallas Cowboys: Momentum Is Building

Optimism.  Momentum.

Optimism is an emotion.  Momentum is a term from physics.  It describes motion and the force behind it.  Until some external force acts on momentum, it continues.

It is also a football term.  Good old momentum.  Announcers talk much like it is a real physical force acting on the players, but what they are really talking about is an emotional thing.  Things get going really well for a team, and the players feel more confident.  They start to believe more in what they are doing.  For some teams, the belief is strong, able to withstand a certain amount of resistance.  Other teams are more fragile, and the first bad thing to happen will reverse the momentum, putting it behind the other team.

However, I am not really talking about the momentum of a game.  I believe that teams can develop a momentum for a season, or an offseason.  That offseason momentum can carry over into the regular season.  

I think the Cowboys are developing good momentum now.  I hope that it will continue through the next preseason game, which is the important one.  As you have noticed if you have been reading BTB for a while, a lot of us are feeling it, and it in turn is feeding our optimism and belief, the same way it does for a team during a game.  My point today is that I think that it is also feeding optimism and belief in the players.  

This is going to be a rather sober and serious post for me.  It may get a little wonky, but I hope you bear with me.

I am not just talking about feelings and totally baseless emotions.  There is a long history proving that optimism and belief has a huge effect on the performance of people.

The classic study on this is a thing called the Hawthorne Effect.  To put it simply, when people believe they are important to the management and changes are made to help them, they tend to perform better regardless of the changes made.  Obviously, really bad or stupid things can negate the improvement, but as long as the changes seem to be positive, the results will be good.  

The Cowboys have seen a whole bunch of changes.  Coaches, players, schemes, and culture have all been changed.  And right now the belief appears to be high that these are good.   A momentum has been created.  

One thing that intrigues me is how much of this is conscious and how much is a sort of unconscious side effect of the character and beliefs the coaches bring to the situation.  I think it is some of both, but I really don't know which is the largest factor.  If I would venture a guess, I would suspect that Jason Garrett is doing a good bit of it deliberately, but that is just my impression.  Fortunately it doesn't really matter as long as the approach of the coaches is consistent.  The payoff will be pretty much the same either way.

The biggest impact is on the established players.  They are the ones who remember last year.  They went through a negative momentum last year.  They knew last year during preseason that the team was not doing well.  The message to them, and to us, was that it was just preseason and that all would be well when the real games started, but their life experiences told them differently.  We went through a parallel experience as fans.  Many of us kept making the same argument, even though our gut was telling us differently.  That same repressed doubt was working on the team.  And we know what happened with that.

This preseason, things are better.  There are many positive signs for most of the team, and the negatives out there are in those players that are not performing up to expectations.  This is a largely self-correcting problem, because the players having a negative camp are those who will not make the final cut, leaving the positives to build the team. Last year, quite frankly, the team did not have enough positives to cut enough of the negatives, and had to keep too many players that should have been gone.  This year the team appears to be in better shape and should enter the season with very few negative performers on the roster.  It is not 100% at this point, but I think it will be close.

At this point, I want to shift gears.  We spend a lot of time here finding numbers and statistics trying to find a way to mathematically predict how the team will do.  This is a rather hazardous thing, because statistics tend to be very accurate at telling us what happened, but quite limited in forecasting the future.  However, there are probabilities that can be determined.  And right now, there are some favorable probabilities out there for the Cowboys.

First there is the churn that happens in the post season.  The recent history of the NFL is that four or more of the playoff teams this season will be teams that did not make the postseason last year.

Another is the parity of the league.  The difference between the good team and the bad teams is not as big as it was just a couple of decades ago.  The salary cap and free agency have narrowed the talent gap, and except for two or three outliers at the top and bottom, like the New England Patriots at the top, the other teams can move up and down quite quickly.  

NYHorn wrote a post about 6-10 teams that I found interesting.  It showed clearly that a 6-10 team often turns the next season around.  Most teams make a move to at least 8-8, and in many cases they go to 10 or more wins.  Last year, 7 teams, including the Cowboys, finished at 6-10.  Just the principle of regression to the mean indicates that most of them will improve, and of course, several of the winning teams from last year will fall back towards the pack.

The players are of course well aware of this.  They are working in a new regime, with some exciting new talent. Much of the deadwood has already been cut, and based on what JG has done so far, there will be more cut.  There is a positive momentum in the team and I think they feel it.  For 53 of them, it needs to carry over into September.

The biggest challenge for the coaches is to keep that momentum going through the Vikings game.  I will admit I am a little worried.  I think the team will do well in the game this week, but I am a little afraid that something could go wrong.

This is the most important game of the preseason.  Of course, that is a bit of a cliche, because the next game should almost always be the most important.  But in preseason, the last game is always for the backups trying to make the team and the coaches to make the final decisions on the roster.  This is the game for the team to establish its momentum for the season.  

I'm not pessimistic about the game, just nervous.  I think the team is still a bit fragile.  They need a good performance.  Not necessarily a win, although a solid one would be ideal, but they must have some success, no big injuries, and a good feeling about what they are doing.

This will be a very riveting game for me.  Here's hoping it is a very good one for the Cowboys.

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