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Stats The Cowboys And Garrett Will Watch Closely This Season

If, by chance, you were ever to meet Jason Garrett, what is the one question you would ask him?

I know what I would ask: "What are the two or three stats on offense you pay attention to most?" Imagine my surprise when somebody at yesterday's press conference asked Jason Garrett that very same question.

His answer: turnover differential and winning the fourth quarter, because they are the two stats most significantly correlated with winning in the NFL. And Garrett has been running practices accordingly in camp. The Cowboys have incorporated a significant number of turnover drills in practice aimed at knocking balls loose, recovering loose balls, batting away passes, linemen tipping passes etc. You name it, they're practicing it.

At the same time, they're running a lot of fourth quarter drills. On Sunday, they twice practiced a game situation starting on the defense's 47 with roughly 40 seconds left on the clock - and no time outs. At the end, the kicking units rushed onto the field at the last second and tried to score (hence Buehler missing from 58 yards and Bailey making it from 52).

After the break, we look at a transcript of what Garrett said and look at the Cowboys' turnover differential in a little more detail.

Part I: Excerpt from Garrett's press conference

Q: What are the two or three stats on offense you pay attention to most?

The stats that we emphasize for our football team more than anything else is the turnover differential. The correlation between turnover differential and winning in the NFL is significant. In 2010 it was significant, the last 10 years it's been significant, the last 20 and the last 30. And the players have heard this in meetings over and over and over again.

So turnover differential is significant, and then winning the fourth quarter is significant. There were a lot of games in the NFL that were within one score in the fourth quarter, and the teams that went to the playoffs won a lot of those games. Teams that did not go to the playoffs lost a lot of those games. It's really important to be good in the fourth quarter.

You do that a couple of ways. You have to be in great condition, and you have to be great in situational football. You have to have confidence as an individual player and in your offense, defense and kicking game units.

And then you have to have poise to handle those situations and execute come crunch time. So those are the biggest things we emphasize to our guys

Q: We saw the team practice a lot of situational football in camp so far. How much are you going to implement that as a daily process?

I don't want to say daily, but it's going to be a lot. We'll see something like that in almost every practice, where we're working on those situations, for the very reasons I'm talking about. The correlations between handling those situations well and winning a ballgame is significant.

Part II: The data to support Garrett's claims

Last season, teams that won the turnover battle won 81 percent of the time (172 wins out of 212 games). This is not rocket science. The bigger the turnover differential in your favor, the bigger the chance you'll win the game.

NFL winning probability by Turnover Differential, 2010 regular season
+1 +2 +3 >+3
Winning %-age 71% 83% 94% 96%
Winning record 66-27 50-10 34-2 23-1

Now that we've established that turnovers are indeed important, let's look at how the Cowboys have fared over the last few seasons in turnover differential:

Dallas Cowboys Turnover Ratio by season, 2000-2010
2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010
-14 -9 -4 -4 -15 -5 +1 +5 -5 -1 0

Note on the background colors. The casual reader might assume that I've chosen the green background color to simply highlight the best TO ratios. Not so, cherished reader, not so at all, especially since the 2010 number is not highlighted.

The trained observer immediately recognizes that the green colored background highlights the years in which the Cowboys made the playoffs. Coincidence? I think not. But that 2010 number looks a bit strange, doesn't it? An even turnover differential and a 6-10 record, how does that compute?

Here's how: Under Wade Phillips, the Cowboys' defensive philosophy had been all about getting pressure on the passer up front - and preventing the big play in the secondary. As a result, the Phillips defenses have traditionally been weak in generating interceptions. That changed dramatically when Garrett took over. In the eight games under Garrett, the Cowboys suddenly led the league in interceptions.

2008 2009 2010 Games 1-8, 2010 Games 9-16, 2010
Interceptions 8 11 20 5 15
NFL Rank 30th 26th 7th T25th 1st

For what it's worth, the last time the Cowboys led the league in interceptions (albeit for the full season, not just eight games) was in 1981. The fact that Cowboys defenses have been fairly weak in interceptions over the last couple of years, but were suddenly able to turn it on for eight games with a new scheme, suggests the lack of interceptions may have been due more to scheme than to the quality of the players in the secondary.

Of course, these interceptions did not come without a price. DC Pasqualoni and Garrett significantly reduced the number of blitzes, opting for only three or four man fronts to bring the pressure in an effort to shore up the secondary. The strategy worked in that it generated a lot of interceptions, and where Phillips had a TO differential of -9 in eight game, Garrett had +9 in eight games. But less pressure up front also resulted in the Cowboys giving up almost as many points (204) in eight games under Garrett/Pasqualoni as they did under Phillips (232).

If the Cowboys can maintain their high defensive interception rate from last year and dial up the pressure at the same time, the Cowboys could see a significant improvement in their defensive performance.

In the next installment we'll look at the other thing Garret talked about, winning the fourth quarter.

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