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Are The Dallas Cowboys On Track For Yet Another Eight-Win Season?

With the impression of yesterday's game still fresh in our minds, it doesn't seem like the Cowboys are anywhere close to being the playoff contenders they were hoping to be this year. We take a look at some numbers to see whether all is lost or not.

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODA

One quarter of the 2013 season is already in the books. After four games, the Cowboys' 2-2 record looks exactly like last year's record after four games. And exactly like the 2-2 record the team started with in 2011. Does that mean the Cowboys are on track for yet another 8-8 season?

Let's dig a little deeper to try and figure out how this team compares to its two previous iterations outside of just the W/L record. Here's how the first four games compare to the previous two seasons in terms of points scored and points allowed:

Cowboys after four weeks
2011 2012 2013
Points scored
99 65 104
Points allowed
101 88 85
Net points
-2 -23 +19

In terms of points allowed, the Cowboys are in almost the exact same spot compared to where they were last year. However, where they have a turnover differential of +3 this year, they were at -7 last year, effectively gifting the opposing teams with more easy scores than they've done this year. In terms of points scored, the Cowboys look to be scoring more points than they did last year - and rank a respectable eighth in the league - but they also have eight takeaways so far, twice the amount they had last year.

Overall, the net points over the first four games suggest that the 2013 Cowboys are playing a little better than the teams from the last two years. But with the impression of yesterday's game still fresh in our minds, it doesn't seem like Cowboys are anywhere close to being the playoff contenders they were hoping to be this year.

To understand where the Cowboys currently stand and what their chances look like going forward, we once again turn to the trusted Pythagorean Formula. We've used the formula often before to measure overall team strength, on the hypothesis that a team's true strength could be measured more accurately by looking at points scored and points allowed, rather than by looking at wins and losses. This is the NFL version of the formula:

Points Scored2.37
Points Scored2.37 + Points Allowed2.37

Using the formula, the Cowboys project as a 9.4 win team for the season, based on the results of the first four weeks. But before we accept that projection as fact, we need to understand exactly how accurate a predictor the Pythagorean formula is in the NFL.

To do that, we'll first look at the "correlation coefficient" between the results of the formula and actual wins. In statistics, the correlation coefficient measures the relationship between two variables. This coefficient is often referred to as "r²" and is expressed as a number between 1 and -1. The closer the r² number is to 1 or -1, the stronger the relationship between the two variables. The closer it is to zero, the weaker the relationship. Here's how closely the Pythagorean Projection matched the actual wins per team at the end of each of the last five seasons:

2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
Correlation (r²) 0.908 0.914 0.904 0.910 0.847

These numbers tell us that points scored and points allowed have a pretty strong correlation with a team's eventual W/L record. "No kidding," some might say. "We didn't need no bunch of fancy numbers to tell us that points and wins are strongly correlated." Apart from the grammar, that would of course be a correct assessment.

Using the final scoring results of a given season to project the W/L record of that same season isn't exactly rocket science. Where it gets a little more interesting is when you look at how good the Pythagorean formula was at projecting a team's final W/L record early in the season. And that's just what the table below does. It shows the accuracy of the Pythagorean win projections after Week 4 over the last five years:

Week 4
2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
Correlation (r²) 0.669 0.683 0.592 0.628 0.476

After four weeks of play, there is already quite a strong correlation between the projection and the actual results, even though it dips a little last year. Blame the Cardinals for that, who started the 2012 season 4-0, projected for 12.6 wins but only won one more game the entire season. Excluding the Cardinals would give us a solid r² of .604

Of course, with every additional week of data, the formula gets better, but after about Week 4 the improvements are gradual, and not as steep as in the first few weeks. For the Cowboys, the projection has been moderately accurate over the last four years, coming to within about two wins of the actual result.

Week 4
2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
Win Projection 11.0 9.4 6.5 7.9 5.9
Actual wins
9 11 6 8 8

So what are the chances of the Cowboys once more ending up with an 8-8 record? Based on the way they played yesterday, some would argue the Cowboys would be lucky to win any more games. Based on the Cowboys' track record against the above formula, an eight-win season would be just as likely as a 10-win season. And the added bonus here is that none of the other NFC East teams are currently projected to come anywhere close to a winning record.

With all of that in mind, here's how the 32 NFL teams stack up after four weeks:

Pythagorean Projected Wins by NFL team, week 4, 2013

Team Won Lost Points
Kansas City 4 0 102 41 14.8
Seattle 4 0 109 47 14.6
Denver 4 0 179 91 14.0
New Orleans 3 0 70 38 13.5
Indianapolis 3 1 105 51 13.2
New England 4 0 89 57 12.9
Miami 3 0 74 53 11.9
Carolina 1 2 68 36 11.6
Tennessee 3 1 98 69 11.4
Detroit 3 1 122 101 10.3
Chicago 3 1 127 114 9.8
Dallas 2 2 104 85 9.4
San Diego 2 2 108 102 8.4
Baltimore 2 2 91 87 8.3
Green Bay 1 2 96 88 8.2
Cincinnati 2 2 81 81 8.0
Buffalo 2 2 88 93 7.6
Cleveland 2 2 64 70 7.4
Houston 2 2 90 105 6.9
San Francisco 2 2 79 95 6.7
Minnesota 1 3 115 123 6.5
Atlanta 1 3 94 104 6.3
Arizona 2 2 69 89 6.2
New York Jets 2 2 68 88 6.2
Washington 1 3 91 112 5.6
Oakland 1 3 71 91 5.3
Philadelphia 1 3 99 138 4.8
St. Louis 1 3 69 121 3.5
Tampa Bay 0 4 44 70 3.0
Pittsburgh 0 4 69 110 3.0
New York Giants 0 4 61 146 1.3
Jacksonville 0 4 31 129 0.4

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