Why Garrett And The Cowboys Must Win The Fourth Quarter in 2011

On Monday this week, Jason Garrett was asked what stats he pays most attention to. His answer: turnover differential and winning the fourth quarter, because they are the two stats most significantly correlated with winning in the NFL.

We looked at turnover differential in a post on Tuesday, and today we take a look at 'winning the fourth quarter'. I thought it was very interesting that Garrett chose the fourth quarter performance to emphasize, but I also found it a little troubling when he talked about correlation to winning in the NFL. After all, teams that play well in the fourth quarter probably play well the rest of the time too.

But Garrett may have chosen fourth quarter performance for another reason, one that's much more closely linked to the Cowboys: at one point during the fourth quarter in 11 of the 16 games the Cowboys played last year, the difference in points between the Cowboys and their opponents was three points or less. No other team in the NFL had more games that were that close in the fourth quarter. The Cowboys' record in those close games: 4-7

Here's Garrett's exact quote:

There were a lot of games in the NFL that were within one score in the fourth quarter, and the teams that went to the playoffs won a lot of those games. Teams that did not go to the playoffs lost a lot of those games. It's really important to be good in the fourth quarter.

Let's first look at the most obvious stat, games decided by a small margin, and see how well the playoff teams conducted themselves last year. The table below shows the W/L records for close games split by playoff and non-playoff teams, and compares their records in close games against their overall record.

Games decided by 3 points or less (65 of 256)
Games decided by 7 points or less (121 of 256)
Total Regular Season W/L
  W/L Percentage W/L Percentage W/L Percentage
Playoff teams 29-11 .630 58-30 .659 121-55 .688
Non Playoff teams 36-48 .429 63-91 .409 135-201 .402

And as you can see, there's not much to see. The playoff teams have basically the same W/L record regardless of whether the games were close or not. Same picture for non-playoff teams, the struggled to win games, whether those games were close or not.

But there's another dynamic here that really drives home Garrett's point: on average, scores were much closer during the fourth quarter than the final score indicates.

While about a quarter of last year's regular season games (65 of 256) were decided by by three points or less, at one point during the fourth quarter, the score differential in half of all games NFL games was three points or less (123 of 256). Two thirds of all games were within seven points at one point in the fourth quarter (166 of 256). The full breakdown below.

Games decided by one score Games within one score
at any point in the 4th quarter
Points Games Pct.   Points Games Pct.
8 or Fewer 130 of 256 50.8%   8 or Fewer 171 of 256 66.8%
7 or Fewer 121 of 256 47.3%   7 or Fewer 166 of 256 64.8%
3 or Fewer 65 of 256 25.4%   3 or Fewer 123 of 256 48.0%

And the Cowboys came out holding the short stick on the majority of games that were close in the fourth quarter. As I noted above, 11 Cowboys game were within three points at some point in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately, the Cowboys won only four of those contests. Here is the full list of the games:

Week Opponent 4th Quarter Score Final Score Result
    Cowboys Opponent Cowboys Opponent  
1 @ Redskins 7 10 7 13 L
2 Bears 17 20 20 27 L
5 Titans 27 27 27 34 L
6 @ Vikings 21 21 21 24 L
11 Lions 21 19 35 19 W
12 Saints 20 23 27 30 L
13 @ Colts 35 35 38 35 W
14 Eagles 20 20 27 30 L
15 Redskins 30 30 33 30 W
16 @ Cardinals 26 24 26 27 L
17 @ Eagles 7 10 14 13 W

The Cowboys kept eleven games very close up until the fourth quarter. But in the end, they lost seven of them. It is clear why this is Garrett's focus. Improved play here in 2011, on offense, defense, and special teams, could easily be the difference between a playoff spot and another top ten pick.

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