6-10, 8-8, 10-6? What's The Cowboys' "Real" Record?

USA TODAY Sports

In many ways, an 8-8 record is one of the worst records to have in the NFL because it leaves you in a sort of no-man's-land. You're not bad enough for a Top Ten draft pick, but you're also not good enough to have made the playoffs. But is 8-8 really how the Cowboys played?

Perhaps more important than the draft slot, an 8-8 record could result in a lot of organizational uncertainty as to what direction you want to take in terms of your personnel decisions. Should you look to rebuild, or are you just a couple of strategic personnel moves away from being able to compete?

The answer to that question can probably be found in what your "perceived record" is versus your actual record. Our own rabblerousr recently phrased that roughly as follows:

Are the Cowboys a 10-6 team that couldn’t close the deal or are the Cowboys a 6-10 squad that played really tough, kept games close and gave themselves a chance to pull out wins against better teams (in no small part due to Romo being a fricken’ Jedi)?

Sure, there are fans who will always gravitate towards the negative side and automatically say the Cowboys "realistically" are a 6-10 team, just as there are fans who consistently overrate everything the Cowboys do and claim that "realistically" the Cowboys would have been a 10-6 team with less injuries and perhaps a little bit of luck here and there.

But confirmation bias aside, the question of the "perceived record" is a critical question which the Cowboys organization needs to find an answer for, and one that will inform all of the personnel decisions over the next few months. As such, the coaching turnover may turn out to be a blessing in disguise, because the four new coaches brought in (so far) will be instrumental in forming as unbiased an opinion as possible about where the Cowboys stand.

But the answer the organization will find will likely turn out to be a little more complex than just saying the Cowboys are a 6-10 team that overachieved or a 10-6 team with a couple of unlucky bounces.

Bill James, the granddaddy of all baseball stats, found that the record of a baseball team can be approximated by taking the square of team runs scored and dividing it by the square of team runs scored plus the square of team runs allowed. The formula was later revised by Daryl Morey (then a statistician for STATS, Inc., since 2007 General Manager of the Houston Rockets), who developed the following NFL version of the formula:

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

The formula is called the Pythagorean theorem and is built on the premise that a team's true strength can be measured more accurately by looking at points scored and points allowed, rather than by looking at wins and losses.

In 2012, the Cowboys scored 376 points and allowed 400. The Pythagorean Projected Wins for this stat line: 7.4 wins. With an 8-8 record, the Cowboys came in slightly better than their projection indicated, but close enough for our purposes. Like many stats used in football, the Pythagorean is susceptible to sample size issues, so we have to use some caution when interpreting its results. Having said that, let's look at a couple of splits.

Despite the mounting injury toll, the Cowboys actually managed a better W/L record in the second half of the season, finishing with a 5-3 record over the last eight games after starting 3-5. And the Pythagorean confirms the Cowboys played a little better in the second half of the season:

Win Projection by Games
Games Points For Points Against Win Projection
1-8 150 181 6.2
9-16 226 219 8.3

Unfortunately, those numbers don't look like something to get your hopes up about. Sure, the offense scored more points in the second half of the season, enough even to compensate for the increase in points allowed by the defense, but overall that just carried the Cowboys from a six-win projection to an eight-win projection. And yes, had the defense maintained its performance from the first half of the season and also allowed only 181 points in the last eight games, the projected wins for those games would climb to 10.1. Overall though, in a scenario where the defense allows 181 points in both halves of the season, resulting in 376 points scored and "only" 362 points allowed, the season projection would not have risen beyond 8.4 wins.

"If only the defense had stayed healthy" is a common argument you hear for why the Cowboys could have had a better record in 2012. The Pythagorean suggests that even had the defense stayed healthy, chances are the Cowboys would still have ended up at 8-8, perhaps 9-7. Of course, you could make the same argument about the offense:

"If only the offense had found its groove earlier" is also an argument you've probably heard before. But if the offense had scored 226 points over the first eight games as well, the 452 points scored and 400 points allowed over the season would have resulted in a projection of "only" 9.2 wins.

Better offense, healthier defense. Sadly, neither offers much reason for optimism about 2013. So let's take a different angle and compare the performance in the first half versus the second half of games:

Win Projection by Halves
Halves Points For Points Against Win Projection
1st Half
124 198 4.0
2nd Half
252 202 10.0

Here we have it in black and white: The Cowboys played like a team competing for a Top Five pick in the draft and like a team competing for the playoffs, often in the same game, which made being a Cowboys fan an extremely frustrating experience. But the performance in the second half of games at least gives reason for some hope.

In terms of points allowed, the Cowboys were equally bad in both halves, and that's something that needs to be fixed. But at least they were consistently bad, so an argument could be made that it can also be consistently fixed. Different story for the offense, which was atrocious in the first half and stellar in the second. Just for your reference, if the Cowboys' offense had kept its first half pace throughout the game, the 248 total points scored would have ranked the Cowboys 31st in the league in points scored, only ahead of the 2-14 Chiefs.

And had they played like they did in the second half over the entire game, the 504 points scored would have been second in the league only to the Patriots' scoring machine. The Cowboys need to address the defense, but they have to ask themselves some tough questions about their offensive (pun intended) performance in the first half of games.

The key for a successful 2013 season will be the offense. We know the Cowboys offense can be an explosive, high-scoring unit. But they need to find a way to do it consistently. The Cowboys' key offseason task will be to find that consistency, be it via new personnel, scheme, playcalling or something else.

And just to hammer home the point, here are the Pythagorean win projections split by quarters:

Win Projection by Halfs
Quarters Points For Points Against Win Projection
1st
36 71 2.7
2nd
88 127 4.7
3rd
84 79 8.6
4th & OT
168 123 10.8
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