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Fast Start Will Be Key To Cowboys Success In 2010

More of this. <em>Please</em>.
More of this. Please.

The Cowboys offense has been unable to come out and hit the ground running in four successive pre-season games so far. Not to over emphasize the importance of the pre-season, but that is a little disconcerting. Disconcerting not just because it would have been nice to get a few scoring drives, but because that is something that is a little too familiar from last season.

The Cowboys had six games last year in which they failed to score a single point in the first quarter, and three more games in which they only scored field goals in the first quarter. That's a total of nine games without a touchdown in the first quarter.

Only once last season did the Cowboys score two touchdowns in the first quarter, in the winning effort against the Saints in week 15. With a grand total of only 71 points scored in the first quarter, and 169 by halftime, the Cowboys ranked 16th in first quarter scoring in the league and 17th in first half scoring.

How you finish is more important than how you start, but does that hold true in the NFL as well? Find out after the break.

Does the early bird get the worm?

In the Super Bowl, teams that get on the scoreboard first have won 64% of the time (28-16), but have incidentally lost six of the last nine. In the 256 regular season games last year, teams scoring first recorded an almost identical winning rate of 66% (168-88). But it's not just whether you score, it's how you score that makes a difference. Getting on the scoreboard first with a field goal was not as highly correlated with a win as getting on the scoreboard with a touchdown:

Scoring first: Winning percentages 2009 regular season
Total Field Goal Touchdown
W/L 168 - 88 59 - 44
109 - 44
in % 66% 57% 71%

Being the first team on the board with a field goal hardly improved your odds of winning the game last season. Getting on the scoreboard first with a TD did increase the odds of winning significantly. Also, in the 254 games last year where at least one TD was scored, the team scoring the first TD (regardless of whether it was preceded by a FG or not) came out the winner in 74% of all games (188-66).

Scoring first, preferably with a touchdown, improved your chances of winning the game last season. Note that these numbers don't necessarily mean that the scoring happened in the early quarters. Scores by quarter follow below.

Fast start is a key to winning games

In Super Bowls, teams that led at halftime won 79% of the time (33-9). Two games have been tied: XXIII (Bengals - 49ers) and XXXIX (Patriots - Eagles).

Getting off to a fast start had a similarly noticeable effect on winning percentages last year. 72% of all regular season games were basically decided by the end of the first quarter, meaning the team that held the lead after the first quarter eventually won the game. And that percentage went up the further the game progressed:

Winning probability when in the lead, by quarter 2009
1st Quarter 2nd Quarter 3rd Quarter
W/L 145 - 56
183 - 149
197 - 37
in % 72% 79% 84%

Keep in mind that these season stats are for the NFL average. An above average team like the Cowboys should have different numbers, and a closer look reveals that they do:

Cowboys record based on scores at halftime, 2006-2009
Cowboys leading
by halftime
Cowboys trailing
by halftime
Score tied
at halftime
Total reg.
season record
W/L 27 - 3
12 - 16
3 - 3
42 - 22
in % 90% 43% 50% 64%

The Cowboys have blown only three halftime leads in the last four years (PHI '06, PIT '08, DEN '09), and the 90% halftime lead winning percentage is higher than the 79% NFL average.

After trailing by halftime, the Cowboys went on to win slightly less than half their games (43%), a lot better than the league average at 21%. A word of caution though: all of the comebacks the Cowboys have staged after trailing by halftime have come in situations where they were trailing by a touchdown or less. Abandon all hope when the opponent leads by more than a touchdown at halftime (NO '06, WAS '07, STL '08, NYG '08) - the Cowboys lost all those games.

When the Cowboys got an early lead, they've been virtually unbeatable in the past. How to get that early lead this year is something the coaches and the team have two weeks left to figure out.

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