TMQB: On close games

I’m going to lead off this week with two items I’ve seen about close games.

This is a comment about Mike Smith’s Atlanta Falcons last year (prior to the GB playoff game). The stats suggested GB was a much stronger team. An Atlanta fan was arguing that the Falcons were really good in close games. Here is the response

Here is the evidential reality re coaching and close, one-score games: Vince Lombardi's Packers, exactly 50%. Bill Walsh's 49ers, 43%. But Vince Tobin has the *all-time best* record in 20 or more close games, going 15-5, 75%! (though unfortunately only 13-38, 25% in all his rest). Dick Jauron won 8 close games for the Bears one year, was named Coach of the Year, praised to the sky for doing what even the great Halas and Butkus could never do, got a new contract and then a new job in Buffalo -- and had losing records in *all* his other nine seasons. (Showing just how *expensive* it can be for GMs to believe in the close game fallacy)

What does this evidence tell you? That Smith knows the secret to winning close games that Tobin knew, and which Jauron knew for one season then forgot, but which Walsh and Lombardi could never figure out?

"Smith pays attention to every minute detail, and when you're looking at close games that are going to come down to a field goal one way or another, it makes sense that that will often be the difference between victory and defeat."

No -- it doesn't make any sense at all. Let's assume for argument's sake that Smith pays more attention to detail than Belichick, who doesn't win so many close games (and more than did Walsh, Lombardi, etc.).

That doesn't just apply in the last minute -- superior coaching makes the team better all game through. That means a team that formerly played close games against mediocre teams and got whomped by good teams now whomps mediocre teams and plays its close games against good teams. It's gotten better, thanks to its coach!

But its close games are still determined overwhelmingly by luck. Why? Because ... obviously ... the closer the game the smaller is the amount of random chance that can change its outcome, regardless of the quality of the coaching, good *or* bad.

It should be really hard to deny that simple logic. But when tempted to, say: Vince Tobin.

And from Bill Barnwell’s NFL preview

The Bears were 7-3 in games decided by a touchdown or less, and that includes a mostly meaningless loss to the Packers in Week 17. Winning close games at that rate is not a product of talent. In 2009, with virtually the same roster, the Bears were 3-5 in games decided by a touchdown or less. Since the strike season of 1982, there have been five other teams that were 7-3 in touchdown-or-less decisions in a given season. Those teams were 13-20 in those games the following year. That's not a small-sample fluke, either. If you take the 135 teams since 1982 that won at least four games by a touchdown-or-less and put up a winning percentage in those games of .700 or better, those teams were 496-478 in close games the following year, a winning percentage of .509. In 2009, the four teams who fit that criteria were the Colts, Vikings, Raiders, and Chargers. They were a combined 22-4 in close games. They went 12-16 in 2010. There's no real reason to think that the Bears will be bad in close games in 2011 (that's the Gambler's Fallacy1), but there's also no reason to think they will be particularly good in them, either.

The lesson? Close games are a coin flip. It’s not toughness or attention to detail or any of the other fairy tales that people like to make up about it.

Last year while Dallas was heading to their 1-7 record they had 5 games that were decided by a TD or less. Dallas went 0-5 in those games. This year Dallas has played 3 games decided by a TD or less. They’re 2-1 in those games. What’s my conclusion? It’s not that Garrett discovered the key to winning close games that no other coach has been able to figure out. No, my conclusion is that Dallas wasn’t as bad as they seemed last year when they went 0-5 in close games.

Winning close games isn’t a sign of fundamental improvement, blowing teams out is (btw, with all the injuries I think this was a great win). Repeat after me: No coach has ever discovered the secret to winning close games, Garrett hasn’t either.

Beware the narrative

Fairy tale writers are out in force making up pleasing tales about how Garrett has instilled toughness and that’s why Dallas is winning close games instead of losing them. Just remember these fairy tales are made up after the fact in light of whatever came before. Specifically remember that Washington muffed a gimme FG that easily could have tipped this game to the Skins. Absent that muffed FG Dallas very likely would have lost this game and you’d be hearing a very different fairy tale, one about how Dallas lost because Garrett hasn’t fixed all the old problems: penalties, mistimed snaps, scoring in the red zone, WRs running wrong routes, boneheaded plays by Tashard Choice to end halves, etc.

And if you need a reminder of why to be wary of fairy tales, just 2 weeks ago there was a popular fairy tale about how Tony Romo chokes under pressure that is incredibly silly now.

The good stuff

The table below summarizes Dallas’s net pass YPA for the period from 2007-2010.

Offensive net pass YPA Offensive net pass YPA Rank Defensive net pass YPA Defensive net pass YPA Rank
2007 7.4 2nd 5.4 6th
2008 6.6 11th 5.3 5th
2009 7.3 6th 5.9 11th
2010 6.7 7th 6.8 28th

As a basis for comparison, summarized in the table below are the maximum, median, average, and minimum net pass YPA for the NFL 2010 season

Net Pass YPA – NFL All Teams 2010 Season
Offense Defense
Maximum 7.8 7.5
Median 6.1 6.1
Average 6.2 6.2
Minimum 4.3 5.3

The Cowboys results from week 3 are summarized in the table below.

Dallas Cowboys
Week Offensive net pass YPA Offensive net pass YPA Rank Defensive net pass YPA Defensive net pass YPA Rank
1 8.2 6.2
2 9.7 4.4
3 6.8 5.8
Season 8.3 2nd 5.8 6th

The Darkos results from week 3 are summarized in the table below.

Darko Cowboys
Week Offensive net pass YPA Offensive net pass YPA Rank Defensive net pass YPA Defensive net pass YPA Rank
1 8.7 5.1
2 6.5 4.8
3 8.9 7.7
Season 8 4th 6.1 11th

Here's the good stuff. While Garrett almost certainly hasn’t discovered the secret to winning close games, he has discovered the secret to producing a consistently outstanding passing game. Garrett is an offensive Houdini. With his #1 WR out, his #2 WR limited, his QB limited, his RB dinged, his center dinged, Garrett once again produced a pretty sweet passing attack. All those screens to Bennett, dump offs to Felix, and off-your-back foot flings to Dez add up as the Dallas offense produced an above average net pass YPA of 6.8 yards/a. Garrett just keeps producing an incredible passing attack no matter the circumstances. I said it last week and I’ll say it again: please get everyone healthy because I have to see this offense at full strength. This bodes very well for the future because unlike winning close games, which is basically a coin flip, good passing can be repeated and is a good indicator of team strength.

The defense was also satisfactory. They held Washington to net pass YPA of 5.8 yards/a which is a slightly better than average performance (Washington is about average as a team). All these good performances add up. Dallas’s D is 6th in the NFL in net pass YPA.

2nd on offense and 6th on defense. That’s good. Competing for a championship good (note that's the exact same as 2007 when Dallas went 13-3). Now I’m going to keep my feet on the ground because Dallas was almost as impressive last year after 3 games. But the results through the first 3 games are better than I could have hoped for.

Sean Lee

Wow. Just wow. If Lee continues like this he’s going to be 1st team all pro, right? Think about that? Who’s better? Patrick Willis? Urlacher? Lee has arguably been the best ILB in the NFL. His pass coverage is incredible (4 ints in 4 NFL starts and he was very close to another on the little dump-off to Hightower in the flat in the 1st half), he’s like the Ed Reed of ILB. And his rush defense isn’t shabby either. Lee has an unbelievable knack for slithering through the OL and getting to RB in the backfield. And if that wasn’t enough Lee came flying in like he was shot out of cannon to secure the game ending fumble.

Here’s where I have to tap the brakes though. There’s no way Lee continues at this pace. Lee is not going to have 16 picks this season, that’s unprecedented for any player, especially an ILB. If he plays at half this pace he’d still be the best ILB in the NFL.

BTW, how big is the gap between Lee and Brooking/James at this point?

Blocking schemes

What’s with the blocking schemes that left Orakpo either unblocked or blocked by John Phillips?

Phil Costa

More has come out about Costa since Monday. Supposedly Bowen was faking the snap count. I don’t know. What I do know is that Gurode had the same problem so the fault can’t lie with just Costa. The problems have been constant through 2 or 3 centers so it’s either Romo or Garrett’s offense. IMO, Romo is just an extension of Garrett. One way or the other I think the blame lies with Garrett.

I’m also not crazy about the $10M QB yelling at the $500K UDFA center (playing through a knee injury) on national TV.

Tashard Choice

3rd & 9, 1:58 left in the game. Dallas simply pounding the ball and running clock to kick a FG. Choice bounces it outside and runs out of bounds. Really? Another completely boneheaded play to end a half against Washington by Choice? For everyone who likes Choice, do you see why he doesn’t play now?


Cumulative turnover margin through Week 3: minus 2. Romo threw a pick and Ogletree lost a fumble. Dallas also got a little lucky that they recovered fumbles by Romo, Laurent Robinson, and Felix as well and Josh Wilson getting his hands on 2 passes but no ints. I’ll say it again. I think there is probably a greater benefit from practicing things like goal line back shoulder fades (e.g. to Bennett) and getting the snap right than practicing ‘turnovers’.

NFL note: For 2010 season Tom Brady threw 4 interceptions. On Sunday against Buffalo Tom Brady threw 4 interceptions. Totally unsurprising.

Bill Barnwell’s NFL preview

And yes, we're even going to take down Tom Brady. During his stunning MVP campaign last season, Brady famously threw just four interceptions in 492 dropbacks, producing an obscene interception rate of 0.8 percent. That was the second-lowest rate for a passer in NFL history, and there's no way Brady will be able to repeat it. You can look at the record books yourself. Although there are one or two seasons from most of the great passers you would expect up there, nobody sustains an interception rate below even 2 percent from year to year, let alone that ridiculous 0.8 percent figure. Even if we assume Brady dips below his career average again and hits an even 2 percent in the same number of attempts, that would be 10 picks. Assuming he throws more frequently (since the Patriots ran a league-low 158 meaningful drives last season against a league average of 182.6), Brady could creep up toward 15 interceptions and it wouldn't be anything extraordinary. Just simple regression toward the mean.

Those interceptions are going to put that defense in short fields, and when the Patriots aren't able to force turnovers at a historically high rate, they're going to keep allowing points. That will end up being New England's downfall as the season goes along, and it'll keep them out of the Super Bowl.

Week 4

Offensive net pass YPA Offensive net pass YPA Rank Defensive net pass YPA Defensive net pass YPA Rank
Dallas 2010 6.7 7th 6.8 28th
Det 2010 5.8 24th 6.2 20th

This will probably be the last week I use the 2010 data. Detroit is playing better than they did in 2010. But let’s remember this is Detroit. They were a poor passing team last year and a below average pass defense last year.

I’ve seen people comment that this game is a long shot for Dallas. I disagree. This game is absolutely winnable for Dallas. Dallas’s offense is a juggernaut. They are going to move the ball and put up points. And while Detroit’s passing game is improved with Stafford’s return, there’s a reason it was one of the worst in the NFL last year. Throw in home field advantage and you’ve got lots of positives for Dallas.

I am a little worried about Nagy. Bowen was able to overpower Nagy. Could be a bigger problem with Detroit.

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