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Fast Start To Games Will Be Key To Cowboys Success In 2011

It’s a widely held belief that the Cowboys are not great starters. And at first glance, the numbers seem to bear that out: in both of the last two seasons, the Cowboys had six games in which they failed to score a single point in the first quarter, and three more games in each year in which they only scored field goals in the first quarter. Over the last two seasons, the Cowboys went scoreless in the first quarter in 12 out of 32 games (38%) and went without a touchdown in the first quarter in 18 out of 32 games (56%).

But what sounds like a lot actually isn’t all that much. In total, teams went scoreless in the opening quarter 40% of the time in 2010, and failed to score a TD in 57% of their first quarters. Dallas is right in the middle of the pack, so would getting off to a fast start be that much of a difference maker?

Last year, 71% of all regular season games in the NFL 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. More after the break.

Here's the winning percentage, by quarter, of teams that held the lead at the end of each respective quarter last year (numbers don't add up to 256 games because some games were tied at the end of a quarter):

NFL winning probability when in the lead, by quarter, 2010
1. Quarter 2. Quarter 3. Quarter
W/L 134 - 55 178 - 53
207 - 37
in % 71% 77% 85%

There's no question that jumping off to an early lead can be a big advantage. A couple of weeks ago I looked at how turnover differential impacts games. One of the interesting findings, for me at least, was seeing the distribution of interceptions by score differential. As it turns out, only 22% of the 511 interceptions thrown last year in the regular season happened when the offense was playing with a lead. 61% of all interceptions were thrown when the offense was playing from behind. Here's a detailed breakdown of the stats.

Interceptions by score differential, 2010 regular season

Behind by 8
or more pts
Behind by 1-7
Ahead by 1-7
Ahead by 8
or more pts
Interceptions thrown 155 155 83 72 45
In % of total INTs
30.3% 30.3% 16.2% 14.1% 8.8%
INT/Pass Attempts 3.3% 3.2% 2.4% 2.2% 2.2%

Playing with the lead significantly changes how you play the game, and not just in terms of interceptions. Teams that are playing from behind tend to take more risks as they try to catch up and make more mistakes, which the teams with the lead are then able to exploit further. There's little doubt that playing with a lead is a good thing, so let's look at how the Cowboys have done in this department.

Cowboys record based on scores at halftime, 2006-2010

Cowboys leading
by halftime
Cowboys trailing
by halftime
Score tied
at halftime
Total reg.
season record
2006-2009 W/L 27 - 3
12 - 16
3 - 3
42 - 22
2010 W/L 4 - 1
1 - 9
1 - 0
6 - 10
2006-2010 W/L 31 - 4
13 - 25
4 - 3
48 - 32
in % 89% 34% 57% 60%

Over the last five seasons, the Cowboys have done even better than the league average when playing with a lead, and have blown only four halftime leads (PHI '06, PIT '08, DEN '09, MIN '10) for a pretty impressive 89% halftime lead winning percentage. Even the disappointing 2010 team managed to pull off a few wins when they held the lead at halftime.

The difference between the 2010 team and previous teams was their ability to come back when trailing at halftime. Where the 2006-2009 Cowboys went on to win slightly less than half their games (43%, 12-16) after trailing by halftime, the 2010 team only managed to win one game (versus Detroit) out of ten in which they were trailing at the half.

Over the last five years, when the Cowboys got an early lead, they've been hard to beat. Getting that early lead is not an easy thing to do, but it will change the face of the game to the Cowboys' advantage, and that's why getting an early lead will be critical to the Cowboys' 2011 season.

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