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The Cowboys Must Win The Fourth Quarter in 2012

Miles Austin brought the Cowboys to within three points of the 49ers with this 4th quarter TD catch last season.
Miles Austin brought the Cowboys to within three points of the 49ers with this 4th quarter TD catch last season.

In our coverage of camp this year, rabblerouser and I both noted how at the end of each practice, Jason Garrett would have the players run windsprints. This isn't something the Cowboys did in previous camps. Garrett explained why he insists on these windsprints:

"We're going to play 16 fourth quarters this season," Garrett said. "They're going to be tough and we're going to be tired, but that's when you have to focus. That's when you have to have poise and mental toughness and continue to do things the right way."

Garrett is emphasizing fourth quarter performance for a very good reason: you may find this hard to believe given how the Cowboys were seemingly overmatched in many games over the last two years, but in 20 of the 32 games the Cowboys played in the last two seasons, the difference in points between the Cowboys and their opponents at one point during the fourth quarter was three points or less. And one of the reasons the Cowboys finished both seasons the way they did is because their record in those 20 games was only 8-12.

It's not hard to imagine that even a slight improvement in your fourth quarter performance could have a pretty strong impact on your overall W/L record, and for the Cowboys this year, winning the fourth quarter will be the difference between making the playoffs and another top 15 pick.

Like his coach, Jason Witten is also focused on improving fourth quarter performance:

"We didn’t finish enough games where we had a chance to win, we let them slip. This is just one area. These are long practices, a lot of running, but you have to be able to gut it out. That is what the fourth quarter is going to be like. A lot of that is physical, but it is also mental."

Witten said the sprints after an exhausting practice are a great way for the Cowboys to work together and have the kind of shared commitment they talk about.

"Hopefully it will pay off for us come the fourth quarter," Witten said.

Most of the time when you read or hear about close games, the stat you'll be presented with is the final score. So let's take a look at that most obvious stat of all. Last season, 50 of 256 games (20%) were decided by three points or less, and 125 of 256 games (49%) were decided by seven points or less.

That's a pretty big difference to the 20 of 32 (62%) Cowboys games where the score was within three points at one point during the fourth quarter. The difference in percentages between these two sets of stats highlights a dynamic that really drives home Garrett's point: on average, scores in the NFL are much closer during the fourth quarter than the final score indicates.

Let's take a look at the numbers: While only a fifth (50 of 256) of last year's regular season games were decided by by three points or less, at one point during the fourth quarter, the score differential in almost half of all games NFL games was three points or less (110 of 256). Two thirds of all games were within seven points at one point in the fourth quarter (166 of 256). The full breakdown below.

Games decided by one score
Games within one score
at any point in the 4th quarter
Points Games Pct. Points Games Pct.
8 or Fewer 132 of 256 51.6% 8 or Fewer 171 of 256 66.8%
7 or Fewer 125 of 256 48.8% 7 or Fewer 166 of 256 64.8%
3 or Fewer 50 of 256 19.5% 3 or Fewer 110 of 256 43.0%

In 2010, the Cowboys played 11 games that were within three points at some point in the fourth quarter, and came away with a 4-7 record in those games. Last season, they played nine of those games and had a 4-5 record. Here is the full list of those games from last season:

Week Opponent Closest 4th Quarter Score Final Score Result
Cowboys Opponent Cowboys Opponent
1 @Jets 24 24 24 27 L
2 @49ers 24 24 27 24 W
3 Redskins 15 16 18 16 W
4 Lions 30 27 30 34 L
6 Patriots 16 13 16 20 L
11 Redskins 24 24 27 24 W
12 Dolphins 17 19 20 19 W
13 @Cardinals 13 13 13 19 L
14 Giants 20 22 34 37 L

The Cowboys kept nine games very close up until the fourth quarter last year. In the end, they lost five of those games. And when you think back to those games, the difference between winning and losing usually came down to one play the Cowboys made or didn't make.

It is clear why fourth quarter performance is Garrett's focus. Improved play here in 2012, on offense, defense, and special teams, could easily mean a two or three game swing in the Cowboys' final W/L record.

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