The "Cardiac Cowboys" and a New Metric

This post originally started out as a look into the "Cardiac Cowboys" and exactly how much time they spend within 7 points of their opponent in recent years. If you stick with me, we'll go even deeper than that, and even come out the other side with a new metric. Something that I haven't seen before (somebody correct me if it's out there somewhere), and I've called Net TO7. Net time leading by over 7 points. But let's start with the original purpose of this fanpost, "The Cardiac Cowboys".

As Cowboys fans, I shouldn't have to point out the fact that over the last couple years, it seems like every game is a nail biter. The team rarely blows anyone out, but also rarely gets blown out themselves. It's become such a regular occurrence, that it might be the only predictable aspect of the team. It's easy enough to look at a final score and determine wins within 7 points, but that often doesn't tell the whole story. There's always the game that "wasn't as close as the score indicated" and vice versa, so I set out on a much more in depth assignment. I wanted to know just how much time the Cowboys spent within 7 points of their opponent, not just when the clock hit 0, but throughout the entire game, for all 16 of them. And of course, that number wouldn't mean much without something to compare it to, so logically (and maybe living up to my screen name) I dug through every box score, every scoring play, and recorded the time spent either leading or trailing by more than 7 points for every team in every game of 2012. To represent that number, I'll use "+/-TO7" (time outside of 7, leading or trailing). Here's the results:


So, yes indeed, the Cowboys played in a lot of close games, but at least we didn't have to watch the Steelers' nail biting 8-8 season, jeez. The average time spent with a difference of 8 or more points throughout 960 minutes (16 games x 60 minutes) of football in 2012 was 329:21. Meaning Dallas played within 7 points of their opponent nearly 100 minutes more than the average. 100 minutes! And so this is where my experiment was originally meant to end. I'd taken a broader scope of the landscape and confirmed my eyeball test, in addition to garnering a sense of how it compared to other teams. But that darn thing rattling around between my ears came up with some more questions. Was keeping the score close as a strategy (as some have accused Garrett of doing) a worthwhile endeavor? How did our other Cowboys' teams of late compare? Is there a noticeable correlation to winning more, the fewer close games you play in? Surely the time spent leading by more than 7 compared to trailing by more than 7 would have a role in that. And so we dig in.

Let's throw in some team records to start.


Hard to draw any concrete conclusions strictly going by close games compared to record. Other than those top 5, it seems to be pretty randomized. In fact, if anything, with 4 of the bottom 7 in close games being pretty good teams, maybe there is something to the strategy of keeping it close. But there's another part of this equation we haven't looked at yet. How much time are these teams playing with an 8+ lead and how much time are they trailing by that amount? The Seahawks for example didn't play outside of 7 points of their opponent very often, but what if 90% of the time they did, they had the lead? Conceivably they could've spent more time with a big lead than a team like the Vikings, who may have ended up being up by a lot and also down by a lot to result in their high +/-TO7. In that situation, the Seahawks' high number of close games were only because half their total was missing. The half they were trailing by more than 7. And that's a good thing. Looking at those numbers may provide some more solid results, let's take a look. What I did was tally up the total amount of time each team played with a lead and trailed by 8 or more points in 2012. Then, I took the difference between the two numbers to find the net. Along the way, I seem to have invented a new metric, I'll call it Net TO7 (net time leading by over 7 points). Let's add that to the chart and see what happens.


Now we start to paint the picture a little bit. I've "greened" the number if the Net TO7 was over 100 minutes throughout the season, and "redded" it if they trailed by that much (aka had a negative TO7 less than -100). So, good god, check out the Patriots. And then check out the Raiders and Chiefs. We can really get an idea now of who was doing the dominating and who was getting dominated. We also see a pretty good correlation with this net number and number of wins. If you can spend more than 100 minutes during the season (an average of 6:25 per game) with an 8+ point lead, you've got a pretty good shot at going 10-6 or better. Likewise, if you spend 6:25 a game trailing by 8 or more, you've got a pretty good chance of being 6-10 or worse. And if you're in the middle somewhere, your record probably will be too.

Let's check out the outliers, starting with our very own Dallas Cowboys! They spent an unbelievable 204:20 trailing by 8 or more in 2012 and only 32:00 leading by 8 or more for a Net TO7 of -172:20. And yet, they are the only team to net worse than -100 and still hit 8-8, or 7-9 for that matter. And there are plenty of teams with "better" nets than Dallas, which are still under -100 who ended up with 5 and 6 wins.

The Chargers had the opposite problem. They in fact had a very good Net TO7, 3rd best in the league actually. And in addition, they had the 8th highest amount of time played outside of 7 points (leading or trailing). And yet, they ended up 7-9. That means they had an 8+ point lead during a lot of football and still ended up losing a lot of games somehow.

Looking at their comparables, the Cowboys "shouldn't" have won 8 games last year, and the Chargers "should" have been in the 10-6 range. Of course, it's football, stuff happens, but it's interesting to ponder why. Romo the comeback kid? Rivers the... not comeback kid? Defense? Running games? Injuries? Dumb luck? The Colts and 49ers are also teams with interesting numbers, but by and large, the admittedly arbitrary 100 Net TO7 cutoff seems to correlate pretty well with a team's record. 28 of 32 teams are green/green, neutral/neutral, or red/red. Meaning by and large, if your Net TO7 is over 100 you're good, if it's under 100 you're not good and if you're in between that, your record is mediocre with few exceptions. Of course there's a couple seconds difference here and there defining who's on which side of that 100, so give that 28 teams number a little leeway depending on where you want to set that cut off.

One last point to make, and this is just for style points. I'm sure somebody smarter and better at math than I am could come up with a multiplier to figure out some final "Domination Rating" or something, but go back to the total amount of time spent outside of 7 points (+/-TO7 column) when you look at some of these. Like the Patriots for example. Not only did they spend a lot of time outside of 8 points, but most of it was in their favor. Opposite for the Chiefs. The 9ers, and to a slightly lesser extent Broncos, Vikings and Texans, played lots of time outside of 8 points, but only 150ish was the net in their favor. Meaning they led by 8+ a lot and also trailed by 8+ a pretty good amount also. Raw numbers for the 9ers, for example: 264:56 leading by 8+, 164:40 trailing by 8+. Compared to the Patriots' unbelievable: 386:33 leading, 57:48 trailing. And we didn't need numbers to tell us that the Cowboys played a lot of close games, and any time there was an 8 point differential, they were almost always on the losing end of it.

Well, I think I've definitely taken this further than I'd originally planned on, but I thought it turned out some interesting results, and unexpectedly a new metric that I might pay attention to as the season rolls on. We've got to be careful because at a certain point this becomes a causation/correlation issue in the mold of "whoever scores the most points wins". It's no revelation that a team that blows out a lot of teams wins a lot and a team that gets blown out a lot doesn't. But it gets interesting the further away from the extremes you get, and I thought there were some interesting results nonetheless, and it takes it further than just "wins within 7 points". I know I've now got a target of 6:25 with an 8+ point lead when I watch the games now. Do that all year and you're almost guaranteed a 10-6 record. Unless you're the Chargers. Just for fun, here's where our teams have stacked up since 2007:


Seems like 2012 was really the only year that we played in an exorbitant amount of close games if that 2012 league average of 329:21 is anything to go by. And we still managed a better record than most other teams could in so many trailing by 8+ situations and close games. 2010 could've produced another win or two, but that was a year without Romo for much of it, so take that as you will. Beyond that, we're right in line with what "should've" happened.

Early results this year have already surpassed 2012's lead total. Dallas has lead by more than 7 points for 66:55 through three games, and has yet to trail by that amount at all. In fact, the Rams game alone accounted for 47:06 of that, compared to 32:00 for ALL of 2012. So it's yet to be seen where the Net TO7 will end up, but so far so good with a 66:55, almost a quarter of the way into the year. That's 22:18 per game, well above that mark of 6:25 that saw most teams hit 10-6 throughout the season last year. Before looking at these numbers I was hopeful but not convinced that this team was different than previous versions. Having seen these numbers from the first 3 games, and where such a trajectory landed teams in 2012, I'm a bigger believer that this is a different team on the field than I was before running these numbers. They'll have to keep it up of course, which is a problem in itself with consistency, but so far this team has looked extremely promising according to these numbers.

So what say you, Cowboys brethren? Explanations for the Cowboys' record actually finishing better than it seems it should have last year? How bout the Chargers finishing worse? Can the Cowboys keep up the pace this year? Will anybody be paying attention to time spent throughout the game leading or trailing by more than 7? I know I found some interesting tidbits in these numbers, what do you say?

Another user-created commentary provided by a BTB reader.

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