Last November, I penned an article that looked at the stunningly high number of close games the Cowboys had played at that point in Jason Garrett's tenure. Last week, after the Chief's game, I returned to this theme, pointing out that, since November, they had continued to involve themselves in contests that were decided by a touchdown or less. Why is this important? The problem is that close games are highly subject to luck; in large sample sizes, all teams' winning percentages in such games, regardless of overall record, are roughly .500.
Skeptical, you say? Let's untangle this a bit. In that November post, I referenced the work of Michael Mauboussin, whose background is as an investment strategist. As such, he thinks deeply about all kind of ideas that are tangentially related to the investment world, and has written books exploring everything from psychological biases and how we think to the understanding of complex systems. It should be no surprise that he's really interested in unraveling the relationship between skill and luck in all its complexity; in a book titled The Success Equation: Untangling Skill and Luck in Business, Sports, and Investing, he does just that.
To do so, Mauboussin develops a spectrum with luck (roulette) and skill (chess) at opposite ends, and locates the various major American sports between these poles. The most skill-based sport, he argues, is NBA basketball, and the most random is NHL Hockey. The second "luckiest" sport is NFL football. Why? Mauboussin offers three reasons: the number of players and how often they are on the field (basketball players log far more minutes than hockey or football players, thus skill plays a larger part); sample size (there are so few games in a football season, and so many fewer possessions than in, say, basketball, that there are fewer opportunities to bleach out luck and randomness); the way the game is scored (a team can be very successful and have nothing on the scoreboard to register that success - or play very poorly but get a couple of lucky bounces and have a lead).
Because football is luckier than other sports with a lot of games (baseball) or many more possessions (basketball) or fewer players on the field, court, or rink, goofy plays - tipped passes, fumbles in heavy traffic, long touchdown passes wherein a defensive back slips after having solid coverage - have a greater effect on the final outcome. With this in mind, what distinguished a good team is not that it has "heart" and wins close games, but that it's good enough to create comfortable wins over a fair amount of opponents, thus limiting the number of games it can lose due to a bad bounce, questionable penalty or blocked field goal at the buzzer.
By extension, teams that play a lot of close games should expect their overall records to hover around the .500 mark - and this has been exactly the over-riding narrative in almost three years under Garrett. The first two games this season, both decided by fewer than seven points, brought the number of such "close games" in Garrett's coaching tenure to 29, out of a total of 42 contests - an almost 70% figure. Given that teams win such games at a .500 clip, they Cowboys are losing 35% of their games (that's five per season) by virtue of being in so few blowouts.
To my mind, this is why Sunday's blowout win against the Rams was so important. As a way of illustrating what I'm talking about, let's look at a couple of similar plays in the last two games, one a nice, easy win and the other the close, nail-biting loss at Kansas City:
1. Late in the fourth quarter at Arrowhead, Mo Claiborne was flagged for pass interference when he reached around Chiefs wideout Donnie Avery to knock the ball down. In the win over St. Louis, Claiborne was charged with another fourth-quarter pass interference, for using an arm bar to delimit Rams receiver Chris Givens as he swatted the ball away. These were very similar plays: athletic displays by Claiborne, judgement calls by the referee (and ultimately both were good calls)
So why aren't we talking about the play against the Rams? Because of context. In Kansas City, Claiborne's play gave the Chiefs a first down on a pass that would have been short had it been completed and the Cowboys, with no timeouts remaining, watched their hopes go down the drain with the call. The other came at the end of a comfortable victory wherein it didn't matter whether or not the Rams scored again.
The key takeaway here is that, on both plays, the team's fate was taken out of its hands and into those of a referee who had to make a difficult judgement call. When a game is close, the likelihood of this happening in such a way that it impacts the final outcome in terms of wins and losses is much greater.
2. In both games, the Cowboys had two fumbles. In KC, you'll recall, Lance Dunbar coughed up the ball at the end of a run and, later in the game, Tony Romo was stripped while rolling out to his right. Back in the friendly confines of AT&T Stadium, Dwayne Harris muffed a punt after the Rams' first possession and, in the second quarter, DeMarco Murray recovered his own fumble after having the ball knocked loose at the line of scrimmage.
We can debate endlessly whether or not the act of fumbling (and generating fumbles) is a legit skill. What cannot be disputed is that recovering fumbles is a matter of chance: the ball bounces, weirdly, to a given player, or changes hands several times at the bottom of a pile. Yes, in the first game, they lost both and in the second contest they lost only one. But that's the point: in both games, the Cowboys subjected themselves to Lady Luck on two occasions.
So, why haven't we spilled gallons of ink on the two fumbles in the Rams game? Because, as with referee's calls, getting big leads means you aren't subject to the vagaries of the elements that make football one of the "luckiest" of sports: fumbles, weird bounces, bad spots, questionable calls, narrowly getting a foot (or a finger) down in bounds. Although we tend to hold onto narratives that say she does, Lady Luck doesn't care about which team is better; she giveth and taketh away equally. And whenever a team is involved in a close game, it increases the likelihood that, when she taketh away, it will affect the final score.
As the Cowboys did on Sunday, good teams simply banish her from the stadium. If they are to have a successful season, they'll have to eliminate her from consideration more often than they don't.