Over the course of Jason Garrett's tenure as the Cowboys' head coach, I have often remarked that the central problem his teams have faced, the issue that had them mired in mediocrity for a three year span, was their propensity for getting involved in too many "close" games - games decided by seven or fewer points. 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.
Because of these factors, goofy plays - tipped passes, fumbles in heavy traffic, long touchdown passes wherein a defensive back slips after having solid coverage - have more value. 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. 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 blow out 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.
To substantiate this, I'd like to begin by looking at the 90s Cowboys, specifically at how many close games Dallas played in their "dynasty" years:
Lets review: 23 of the 90s Cowboys 64 contests were decided by seven points or fewer, which translates to a "close game percentage" (CGP) of 36%. But what the above table suggests above all is that good teams tend to outscore their opponents by large margins. In four great seasons, the Cowboys were 15-1 in games decided by three or more touchdowns, and 8-2 in games where the margin was between two and three touchdowns. They were also 16-1 when the margin fell between 8-13 points.
But here's the kicker: For all that team's general dominance, they were a mere 12-11 - and were never better than 4-2 - in "close" games. Overall, they had one of the most impressive four-year stretches in league history - emerging victorious in 81 percent of their games - but only 52.2 % of all close games. In other words, of their fifteen total losses in four years, eleven occurred in close games. This allows us to look at the 90s Cowboys with this in mind: they were good because they managed to avoid close games.
In an NFL landscape in which a close game can turn on a flukey, chance moment - a fumble, a controversial officials' ruling, a deflected pass, a slip on the turf - the best way to be a winning team is to avoid being in a situation wherein luck can determine the outcome. Here's the key: every season between 1992-95, Dallas enjoyed five to seven comfortable wins, games in which they outplayed the vagaries of the game so that a bad bounce or dropped pass couldn't hurt them.
And that's precisely what Jason Garrett's teams failed to do in his time at the helm. Let's engage in the same exercise, looking at the last four and a half Cowboys seasons:
From 2010 to 2013 (a 56-game sample size), Garrett's Cowboys played in a total of 37 games decided by seven or fewer points, for a staggeringly high 66.1% CGP. Their record in those games, as might be expected if we accept the "all teams hover around .500 in close games" theorem, was 19-18, or 51.3%, nearly identical to that of the 90s Cowboys. Want to know the difference between the two four-years runs? The 90s Cowboys played 43 games decided by eight or more points (and were 39-4 in those games); Garrett's 2010-13 bunch played in only 19 such contests (albeit in eight fewer games), sporting a 10-9 record.
Want a snapshot of the Garrett Cowboys in that span? Look no further than the final six games of the 2010 season. Garrett, you may recall, took over after eight games were in the books. In the Cowboys first two games under his tutelage, they authored 13 and 16 point wins. But check out the margins in the next six games: -3; +3; -3: +3; -1; +1. In 2010's final six games, a pattern was established. Check out how many "closies" they played in subsequent seasons: 2011: 9; 2012: 12; 2013: 10. That's a staggering amount of opportunities to be exposed to the many vagaries of the NFL game. How could Dallas be anything other than .500 for three straight years, given the amount of close games in which they were involved?
In 2014, this changed. As the above table confirms, the Cowboys played in the lowest percentage of close games in Garrett's tenure (it must be noted that their record - 4-1 - in these games suggests that they were slightly "lucky"). More importantly, they notched more "good" wins than at any other time in the last five seasons, registering 10, 11, 13, 14, 16, 21, 27, and 35 point victories. I'll repeat my mantra once again: good teams aren't good because they win close games, but because they managed to avoid close games. That's eight games where Lady Luck - who bring us fumbles, weird bounces, bad spots, questionable calls, and plays where a brilliant receiver has a finger graze out of bounds - is banished from the stadium.
Which brings me to the recent playoff run. The dominant storyline in both games - questionable calls - are Lady Luck's bailiwick. In both contests, the Cowboys failed to play well enough to banish her from the stadium. On one occasion, they emerged victorious; on the other, they were sent packing (no pun intended). In other words, in close playoff games, their record hovered around - you guessed it - .500. The next step for this team, therefore, is to get better, to be good enough to play fewer close playoff games, to distance themselves further from Lady Luck when it matters most.
Look at the 90s Cowboys playoff performance from 1991-95:
1991: 4-point win, 32-point loss
1992: 24-point win; 10-point win; 35-point win
1993: 10-point win; 17-point win; 17-point win
1994: 26-point win; 10-point loss
1995: 19-point win; 11-point win; 10-point win
Talk about avoiding the lucky bounces that can make the difference between going on or going home; from 1992 on, Dallas never had nothing but double-digit playoff wins!
Of course, that was a different era; thanks to the salary cap and better management throughout the league, all the teams are much more evenly matched than they were then. Nevertheless, its not an optimal strategy to cross one's fingers and hope for a lucky run a la the Giants in 2011. Rather, if the 2015 Cowboys are truly to contend for Lombardis, they must do so in two ways:
1. Get a first round bye (if byes still exist after the owners decide to jigger the playoff structure this offseason): Getting a bye is perhaps the best way to avoid Lady Luck, as it guarantees that she'll be involved in one fewer games against top-flight competitions. Which brings me to:
2. Improve enough to obtain and extend leads over better teams: In 2014, eight of the Cowboys comfortable wins were against teams that were a collective 27-101. That leaves two signature 8-points + victories over playoff-caliber competition: the 38-27 in Philly and the 42-7 rout of the uninspired Colts. Against teams that were 8-8 or better, the Cowboys results were as follows: 11-point loss; 3-point win; 7-point win; 11-point loss; 23-point loss; 11-point win; 35-point win. Against non-losing teams, the Cowboys were 4-3, including all three of their double-digit losses.
These "better" teams are precisely those that Dallas will face in the postseason should they make continued appearances in coming years. If they are to have more success in future than they did in 2014, the Cowboys will simply have to be better. Otherwise, they place themselves in Lady Luck's wrinkled, gnarled hands. And that's a damned uncomfortable place to be.