As I noted in the series' first two installments, there are some useful statistical categories from previous seasons that can help us successfully predict what will happen in the NFL the following season. In the first post, I looked at categories wherein a little bit of improvement, regression to the mean or return to former status would contribute to improving their fortunes in 2014. In the second post, I proffered a handful of categories where they aren't likely to match 2013's performance. Today, I'll outline the remaining categories, those in which the Cowboys are likely to be about the same as they were in 2013.
Record in One-Touchdown Games: In 2013 the Cowboys played ten games that were decided by seven or fewer points. I have oft noted that close games are a subject to luck; unlike sports with a lot of games (baseball) or many more possessions (basketball) or fewer players on the field, court, or rink, the weird plays in football factor more heavily in the final outcome. Because football is the second "luckiest" sport, behind NHL Hockey, all teams tend to hover around .500 in games decided by a touchdown or less. Indeed, the Cowboys' record was 5-5 in those ten close contests.
What distinguishes a good team, then, is not that it has "heart" and wins close games - this has been shown to be a silly fallacy - but that it's good enough to blow out a fair amount of its opponents, thus limiting the number of games it can lose due to a bad bounce, questionable penalty or blocked field goal at the buzzer. In short, they avoid being in a situation wherein luck can determine the outcome. The Cowboys have been terrible in this regard; since 2009, they have played in 50 games decided by seven or fewer points, notching a 23-27 record in those contests.
Think about it: by averaging ten close games every season since 2009, the Cowboys are, in essence, starting every year at 5-5, which means they have to win the remaining six games (by more than a touchdown) to be a legitimate 11-5, playoff-caliber team. So here's the key: Dallas isn't likely to have a higher winning percentage in close games in 2014; what they can do is to play fewer such contests.
Turnover margin: Last year, Dallas' turnover margin stood at a relatively healthy +8. To break it down further, they were +5 in fumbles, losing eight and recovering thirteen (out of a total of sixteen!), and +3 in interceptions, after throwing twelve picks and tallying fifteen interceptions of their own. While their fumbles numbers are ridiculous (as was documented in part II of this series), their interception numbers fell off sharply as the defensive line's injuries piled up. So, while its unlikely the Cowboys are so lucky recovering fumbles, they aren't as likely to suffer as many injuries, and should have more interception opportunities. I'll call it a wash...
More important is the relationship of the Cowboys +8 to the dreaded "reversion to the mean." Typically, teams at the extreme ends of the turnover spectrum are unable to sustain that level in consecutive campaigns. For example, the five teams at the top of 2012's turnover charts - the Patriots, Bears, Giants, Redskins and Falcons - were unable to repeat in 2013, each falling off by at least 15. This worked the other way; teams like the Chiefs and Eagles went from TO margin bottom-dwellers to having the NFL's second and fourth-best TO margins, respectively.
So where does this put the Cowboys? Well, the did suffer a -13 TO margin in 2012, so its possible that they will revert to that in 2014. But if we look at this team in recent years (2009: +2; 2010: even; 2011: +4), it appears that -13 is the aberration. So, while they did enjoy a strangely positive TO margin swing in 2013, it can be seen as a correction to their nasty -17 point TO swing from 2011 to 2012. With that in mind, I'd expect the Cowboys to be close to where they were last season.
Dan Bailey's Field Goal Percentage: At first glance, is hard to imagine any kicker being as good as Bailey was in 2013, even Bailey. Lest we forget, here are his staggering numbers from last year:
40-49: 10/ 10
Extra Points: 47/47
That's a 93.3 percent clip, standing as the second-best season for a Cowboys kicker ever, behind only Chris Boniol's 1995 campaign (during which Boniol never attempted a field goal of more than 50 yards). Surely, Bailey can't match that total in 2014, right? Not so fast, Buckaroo. He was actually slightly better in 2012, hitting three-pointers at a 93.5% rate, with his only two misses both coming in the 50+ range.
Our friend "Split em" is the Cowboys most consistently excellent performer. If there's one thing we can depend on in this upcoming season of uncertainty, its Bailey.
So, there it is, three posts filled with categories that are sure to get better, those that are likely to fall off, and three that should stay about the same. The real question is: once all the improvements, declines and continuities are tabulated by the Great Football Reckoner in the Sky, will the Cowboys break through the 8-8 schnied that has fixated them for
nigh on a century three seasons now? My only answer is an unsatisfying one: we'll have to watch it play out...