One quarter of the 2014 season is already in the books. After four games, the Cowboys' 3-1 record is a welcome respite from the three consecutive 2-2 starts of the previous years. But does that mean that all is well in Cowboys land?
Let's dig a little deeper to try and figure out how this team compares to its three previous iterations beyond just the W/L record. Here's how the first four games compare to the previous three seasons in terms of points scored and points allowed:
|Cowboys after four weeks
In terms of points allowed, the Cowboys haven't really changed much versus the last two years and find themselves in almost the exact same spot as they were the last two years. Take this as a warning that not everything that glitters is gold in 2014. While the 86 points allowed rank the Cowboys 14th in the league, a significant improvement over last year's season ranking of 26, the experience of the past two years indicates rougher times could still be ahead.
On the bright side, the Cowboys are scoring more points than they did in any of the three previous years, and rank a very strong fourth in the league in points scored.
Overall, the net points over the first four games (29 points differential, 5th best value in the NFL) suggest that the 2014 Cowboys are playing better than the teams from the last three years. But what does that mean for the rest of the season?
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 Allowed2.37
Using the formula, the Cowboys currently project as an 11.0-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:
These numbers tell us that points scored and points allowed have a very strong correlation with a team's eventual W/L record. Of course, we don't need a bunch of fancy numbers to tell us that points and wins are strongly correlated.
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 six years:
From 2008 through 2011, we saw quite a strong correlation between the projection and the results at the end of the season. But the correlation has taken a dive the last two years. Whether this is the start of a trend or just a momentary aberration is unclear, but the reason for it is clear: Last year, an unprecedented number of teams significantly over- or underperformed their projection. The Giants for example started 0-4, had a projection of 1.3 wins after four games, but climbed back to 7 wins. That 5.7-win swing was the biggest swing of any team last season, but it wasn't the only big one:
|2013 Team||Week 4 Record||Projected Wins||Actual Wins||Swing|
This is a timely reminder that while projections like these can be accurate for some teams, they can be wildly inaccurate for others. Of course, with every additional week of data, the projections will get better, but where's the fun in waiting until you're absolutely, completely sure?
For the Cowboys, the projection has been fairly accurate over the last six years, coming to within 1.3 wins of the actual result on average.
Cowboys Week 4
So what are the chances of the Cowboys ending up with a double-digit win total this year? Based on the Cowboys' track record against the above formula (as well as the way they have played recently) a winning season definitely seems feasible, and a double-digit win total currently appears possible. There is just one complication: Two other NFC East teams are currently projected with similar win totals. The Eagles currently project at 10.1 wins, and the Giants at 8.9 wins, which might make the NFC East a much tougher division than anybody expected going into the season, with the caveat that opponent strength is not factored into the formula.
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, 2014
|New York Giants||2||2||103||91||8.9|