Faster Start Will Be Critical For The Cowboys Remaining Games

Jeff Zelevansky

Gaining an early lead in games is a critical yet sometimes underappreciated factor in winning games in the NFL. The Cowboys have held a lead at halftime in only three games so far this year, one of the lowest numbers in the league. That's got to get better down the stretch, or the season will end early for the Cowboys. Again.

In yesterday's game against the Eagles, the Cowboys went into halftime trailing by seven points. By now, this has become a familiar situation for the Cowboys, as they have trailed by halftime in eight out of their twelve games this year. Only three teams have trailed more often by halftime; the Browns, Chiefs and Jets have all been down at the half nine times so far this season.

In those eight games, the Cowboys have compiled a 3-5 record. Conversely, the Cowboys have won all three games in which they held the lead going into the half (Wk 1 Giants, wk 3 Bucs, Wk 10 Eagles). The game against the Falcons was the only one tied at the half and the Cowboys eventually lost that one. Here's how those numbers stack up against previous seasons:

Cowboys record based on scores at halftime, 2010-2012

Cowboys leading
by halftime
Cowboys trailing
by halftime
Score tied
at halftime
Total reg.
season record
2010
W/L 4-1
1-9
1-0
6-10
2011 W/L 4-4
2-4
2-0
8-8
2012 W/L 3-0
3-5 0-1 6-6
Total W/L 11-5
5-18
3-1
20-24
in % .687 .217 .750 .454

Over the last three seasons, when the Cowboys have held a halftime lead, they have the record of a playoff contender. When they've trailed at the half, their record looks like that of a team picking in the Top Five of the draft.

A look at the total league numbers this year shows just how important an early lead is: 73% of the games so far this season were basically decided by halftime, meaning the team that held the lead after the first half eventually won the game. Here's the winning percentage, by quarter, of teams that held the lead at the end of each respective quarter so far this season (numbers don't add up to the 191 games played through today because some games were tied at the end of a quarter):

NFL winning probability when in the lead, by quarter, 2012
1. Quarter 2. Quarter 3. Quarter
W/L 101-51 129-48
140-37
in % 66% 73% 79%

There's no question that jumping off to an early lead can be a big advantage. But another effect of playing with a lead is that it changes the way you play the game, on both offense and defense. We know that teams with a lead run the ball a lot more as try to protect that lead and try to minimize the mistakes that can happen when you throw the ball. We've seen how the Cowboys have abandoned the run and gone pass-heavy to catch up in a number of games where they've fallen behind this season.

One of the more interesting things that happen when teams are playing from behind (in my opinion at least) is that they take more risks in the passing game. From a statistical point of view, that risk manifests itself in more interceptions. Take the 2011 season for example: only a quarter of the 506 interceptions thrown in the regular season last year happened when the offense was playing with a lead. Almost two thirds of all interceptions were thrown when the offense was playing from behind.

Interceptions by score differential, 2011 regular season

Behind by 8
or more pts
Behind by 1-7
pts
Game
tied
Ahead by 1-7
pts
Ahead by 8
or more pts
Interceptions thrown 163 136 85 72 50
In % of total INTs
32.2% 26.9% 16.8% 14.2% 9.9%

Once you're playing from behind, your ground game goes out the window, and you start taking more risks in your passing game in an effort to catch up. Not only do teams playing from behind throw the ball a lot more often than the teams playing with a lead, they also have those passes intercepted more often. Similarly, a team playing with a lead will generally find it easier to record interceptions on defense.

And the stats bear this out. The interception rate (Interceptions divided by passing attempts) increases the further a team is behind, and the Pass/Run ratio tilts heavily towards the passing game when teams are playing from behind. Conversely, when playing with a lead, especially a big one, teams tend to run more than they pass, and they take fewer risks in the passing game, which in turn leads to fewer mistakes and turnovers.

Pass/Run ratio and INT% by score differential, 2011 regular season

Behind by 8
or more pts
Behind by 1-7
pts
Game
tied
Ahead by 1-7
pts
Ahead by 8
or more pts
Pass Attempts 4,755 4,401 3,139 3,072 2,052
INT/Pass Attempts 3.4% 3.1% 2.7% 2.3% 2.4%
Pass/Run Ratio in % 69% 59% 53% 50% 42%

We've seen that when the Cowboys did get an early lead, they were not so easy to beat. Getting that early lead is not an easy thing to do, but it will change the face of the game to the Cowboys' advantage: They can afford a more balanced offensive gameplan, they'll get more takeaways on defense, they'll score more points and ultimately win more games.

Getting an early lead will be critical to the remainder of the Cowboys' season. The odds are that if they take a lead in each of their remaining games, they'll go 3-1 down the stretch. If they continue playing from behind, it's likely they'll end up 1-3.

And finally, if you only throw once each to your number one and two wide receivers in the entire first half, you shouldn't be surprised when you're trailing by halftime.

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