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Dallas Cowboys Pre-Season: Of Tea Leaves, Coffee Grounds and Wine Sediments

Tasseography (also known as tasseomancy or tassology) is a divinatory form of predicting the future that seeks to interpret patterns in tea leaves, coffee grounds or wine sediments left in a cup or glass.

An "expert" (the Reader) reads the symbols in the residue left in a cup or glass after drinking (by the Sitter) and predicts the future based on what he or she sees. The patterns that form inside the cup trigger psychic insights by the Reader who then proceeds to interpret the symbols according to what he or she thinks they mean.

In mystically inclined circles, it is frowned upon to have Sitters read their own cup. To retain any form of validity, the cup must be read by a person with clairvoyant or psychic abilities.

The pre-season is no different from a cup of tea with tea leaves left at the bottom: Everybody is trying to divine some meaning from it. Depending on your persuasion, you might worry about the worst exhibition start for the Cowboys' offense in more than 20 years, ponder the Cowboys' offense end zone allergy, show some concern for the listless Dallas offense or pray for the struggling O-line.

Or you could focus on the positive aspects, like David Buehler making pressure kicks, the defense picking up where it left off, players like Jesse Holley getting noticed or even Stephen McGee leading the team ... in rushing.

Regardless of where each of us stands, we're probably reading too much into the pre-season. We all know that the pre-season performance isn't any indicator of regular season performance. The 2008 Lions are the best example of that, going 4-0 in the pre-season and ending up 0-16 in the regular season. In 2009, the Rams won three times more games in the pre-season (3) than in the regular season (1). On the other hand, the Saints pre-season may very well have been a harbinger of things to come, as they went 3-1 and outscored their opponents 107-38. Hmmm ...

With the benefit of hindsight

Let's take a look at the prophetic abilities of last year's pre-season in the NFC East. Teams do play their first teams for some parts of the pre-season, and over the course of first three pre-season games in 2009, each NFC East team accumulated enough data by their first teamers to make it possible to take a stab at evaluating the heraldic abilities of the pre-season.

Let's start with the QBs. Statistically, the performance of the starting QBs is easily tracked:

QB Pre-Season Passer Rating, 2009

Rating Actual 2009 rating
47 33 353 70.2 7.5 1 1 90.1 97.6
61 37 424 60.7 7.0 2 1 85.7 92.9
Campbell 35 17 257 48.6 7.3 0 0 73.2 86.4
Manning 34 18 184 52.9 5.4 1 1 66.3 93.1

Okay, pretty obvious that there is little correlation between the QBs pre-season ratings and their subsequent regular season rating. In fact, the differences in QB rating between pre- and regular season are so staggering that drawing any type of conclusion from the pre-season numbers would require an advanced degree in Divination from Professor Trelawney at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Now let's look at the defense and points allowed on drives when most or all of the first-team defense was on the field. To do this I calculated Equivalent Points allowed per Game: The average number of drives per game is about 12 in the NFL. Multiplying the points per pre-season drive with 12 gives an indication (inexact, but it is what it is) of how many points the teams would have given up with their pre-season performance over four quarters in one game.

FIRST TEAM Defense Pre-Season performance by drive, 2009

Points allowed Points allowed per drive
Equivalent Points allowed per Game
ACTUAL Points allowed per Game, 2009
14 16 1.1 13.7 15.6
14 34 2.4 29.1 26.7
Redskins 14 37 2.6 31.7 21.0
Eagles 16 48 3.0 36.0 21.1

At first glance, it looks like the Cowboys defense showed early signs of things to come. At the same time, the Eagles must be fairly happy that the pre-season and regular season were two different things last year. So again, little to no correlation.

Same exercise for the offense:

FIRST TEAM Offense Pre-Season performance by drive, 2009

Points scored Points scored per drive
Equivalent Points scored per Game
ACTUAL Points scored per Game, 2009
11 31 2.8 33.8 22.6
12 24 2.0 24.0 16.6
Eagles 18 33 1.8 22.0 26.8
Giants 15 20 1.3 16.0 25.1

The Cowboys scored prolifically in the pre-season, yet only came in 14th in scoring in the regular season, and ranked behind the Eagles (5th) and Giants (8th), who both had fairly low-scoring pre-seasons last year.

Professional and amateur clairvoyants can read into the pre-season teacups what they want, the chances of actually getting it right are pretty slim.

What the Cowboys are saying

Perhaps we should turn to the uncommon practice of listening the Sitters, in this case the Cowboys organization, and what their take on the pre-season is so far:

Tony Romo noted there's a fine line between trying to work on things and not giving away too many secrets about this season's offense:

"We did some good things, some things we have to work on and get better at," Romo said following a 17-9 loss to Oakland on Thursday night. "But at some point, we have to get it in and get better," he said. "This team is not where we need to be yet."

Felix Jones isn't worried about the slow start.

"It's the pre-season," Jones said. "We're working on little fundamentals and focusing on that now, letting young guys get more reps. ... We do our (first-team) work on the practice field now."

Jason Garrett isn’t in panic mode. While he thinks the offense could to do better particularly on third downs and in the red zone, he also sees some bright spots.

"There are a variety of areas we’re not real happy with," he said. "But then if you dig a little deeper, you’ll understand we’re evaluating players, putting them in different spots and being fairly simple in our approach."

In his afternoon press conference on Saturday, Coach Wade Phillips also made clear that he doesn't think all that much about Tasseography:

We’ve only played [the first team] three or four series in total. If you can pull something out of that, and say you’re going to be this or that ...

We're not a football team yet. We have some individuals who are working hard and getting better. Some of them have come along real well, some of them haven't come along as well as we'd like."

How to enjoy pre-season games

So if the outcome of pre-season games don't matter, if team performance is not predictive of regular season performance and you're watching scrubs most of the time anyway, what's the point of watching a pre-season game, and how can you get any enjoyment from it?

Simple. Don't watch the football.

Sander, a writer for SBNation Buccaneers Blog, Bucs Nation, summarizes very nicely in this article why not watching the football can actually improve your viewing experience of pre-season games.

Most people watching a football game will follow the ball. This makes sense, as TV coverage is geared toward following the ball, and what happens to the ball is what's important for the outcome of the game. However, in pre-season this doesn't matter as the outcome of the game is irrelevant.

What's relevant is the performance of individual players, which is why that's what I try to concentrate on. For those who have never done that before, it's somewhat easier said than done: it takes a bit more concentration than usual to really pay attention to individuals, and I find I need to remind myself not to watch the ball.

But when I do ignore the ball, pre-season games are a lot more rewarding to watch. Doing this also gave me a lot more insight into the game: I got to see how well a cornerback jams a receiver, how he can flip his hips and run with the receiver. I saw how a linebacker manages to get around a blocker to the running back, or how he holds his gap responsibilities. I saw how a wide receiver blocks downfield [OCC: wait until this guy sees Roy Williams in action!], and how a guard moves downfield to block at the second level.

Enjoy the pre-season games for what they basically are, extended tryouts for fringe players and rookies in real game situations. Don't try to divine too much from the pre-season teacup, and take the naysayers, scaremongers and doom merchants for what Spiro T. Agnew said they are: nattering nabobs of negativity. Or alternatively: hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.

Take this headline for instance: "Raiders save the best for the last quarter". While technically true - the Raiders did score two TDs and a field goal in the final 5:06 minutes of the game to pull out a 17-9 victory - that scoring also happened when a lot of players who won't play for the Raiders got the better of a lot of players who won't play for the Cowboys.

Try reading something out of that.

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