Cowboys On Track For A Six-Win Season?

Ronald Martinez - Getty Images

The Cowboys currently project to be a six-win team based on the first four weeks of play. Their chances of making the postseason look slim at best - and non-existent if they continue playing the way they have been.

One quarter of the 2012 season has already been played. After four games, the Cowboys' 2-2 record looks better than the football they have played over large parts of those four games. The Cowboys' 16.2 points scored per game rank them just ahead of the Jaguars in 31st place in the league, prompting John McClain of the Houston Chronicle to ask

How does a team with Romo, Murray, Jones, Bryant, Austin and Witten average only 16.2 and rank next to last? Unbelievable.

At 2-2, with 65 points scored and 88 points allowed, the Cowboys do not look anything like the playoff contenders they were hoping to be this year. In fact, at this point it looks rather unlikely that the Cowboys will find a way to win eight of the remaining twelve games, which they would probably need to do to have a chance at the playoffs.

To understand where the Cowboys currently stand and what their chances look like going forward, we once again turn to the trusted Pythagorean Formula. We've used the formula often before (for more details, go here) to measure overall team strength, on the hypothesis that a team's true strength could be measured more accurately by looking at points scored and points allowed, rather than by looking at wins and losses. This is the NFL version of the formula:

Points Scored2.37
Points Scored2.37 + Points Allowed2.37

Using the formula, the Cowboys project as a 5.9 win team for the season, based on results of the first four weeks. But before we accept that projection as fact, we need to understand exactly how accurate a predictor the Pythagorean formula is in the NFL, and what the Cowboys' chances are of beating that projection.

To do that, we'll first look at the "correlation coefficient" between the results of the formula and actual wins. In statistics, the correlation coefficient measures the relationship between two variables. This coefficient is often referred to as "r²" and is expressed as a number between 1 and -1. The closer the r² number is to 1 or -1, the stronger the relationship between the two variables. The closer it is to zero, the weaker the relationship. Here's how closely the Pythagorean Projection matched the actual wins per team at the end of each of the last four seasons:

2008 2009 2010 2011
Correlation (r²) 0.908 0.914 0.904 0.910

These numbers tell us that points scored and points allowed have a pretty strong correlation with a team's eventual W/L record. "No kidding," some might say. "We didn't need no bunch of fancy numbers to tell us that points and wins are strongly correlated." That is correct of course.

Using the final scoring results of a given season to project the W/L record of that same season isn't exactly rocket science. Where it gets a little more interesting is when you look at how good the Pythagorean formula was at projecting a team's final W/L record early in the season. And that's just what the table below does. It shows the accuracy of the Pythagorean win projections after Week 4 over the last four years:

Week 4
2008 2009 2010 2011
Correlation (r²) 0.669 0.683 0.592 0.628

After four weeks of play, there is already quite a strong correlation between the projection and the actual results. Of course, with every additional week of data, the formula gets better, but after about Week 4 the improvements are gradual, and not as steep as in the first few weeks. For the Cowboys, the projection has been reasonably accurate over the last four years, coming to within about two wins of the actual result.

Week 4
2008 2009 2010 2011
Win Projection 10.7 9.9 8.2 7.8
Actual wins
9 11 6 8

So what are the chances of the Cowboys beating their 5.9 win projection? Here are a couple of sobering facts:

  • Over the last four years, 73% of all teams (93 of 128) stayed within plus or minus three games of their Week 4 Pythagorean projection.
  • Of the 40 teams with a Week 4 projection of six wins or less, only two ended up with a winning record at the end of the season ('08 Colts and '08 Vikings)
  • Assuming 10 wins gets you a playoff spot, the Cowboys would need to beat their projection by 4.1 games. Only seven of 128 teams (5%) managed such an improvement over the last four years versus their Week 4 projection.

Any way you look at it, the odds of the Cowboys making the postseason look slim at best - and non-existent if the Cowboys don't significantly improve the way they are playing.

With all of that in mind, here's how the 32 NFL teams stack up after four weeks:

Pythagorean Projected Wins by NFL team, week 4, 2012

Team Won Lost Points
Houston 4 0 126 56 14.5
Atlanta 4 0 124 76 13.1
Arizona 4 0 91 61 12.6
San Francisco 3 1 104 65 12.0
Chicago 3 1 108 68 12.0
Baltimore 3 1 121 83 11.5
San Diego 3 1 100 71 11.3
Minnesota 3 1 90 72 10.6
New England 2 2 134 92 10.5
Denver 2 2 114 83 10.2
New York G 2 2 111 84 9.9
Seattle 2 2 70 58 9.3
Cincinnati 3 1 112 112 9.0
Green Bay 2 2 85 81 8.3
Washington 2 2 123 123 8.0
Pittsburgh 1 2 77 75 7.7
Philadelphia 3 1 66 83 7.4
Buffalo 2 2 115 131 7.1
St. Louis 2 2 79 91 7.0
Miami 1 3 86 90 6.7
Tampa Bay 1 3 82 91 6.3
Detroit 1 3 100 114 6.1
New York J 2 2 81 109 6.0
Dallas 2 2 65 88 5.9
Indianapolis 1 2 61 83 5.2
Carolina 1 3 80 109 4.9
New Orleans 0 4 110 130 4.8
Kansas City 1 3 88 136 4.2
Jacksonville 1 3 62 97 4.1
Cleveland 0 4 73 98 4.0
Tennessee 1 3 81 151 3.2
Oakland 1 3 67 125 3.2
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