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Field Position: The Cowboys' Not-So-Secret Weapon

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For all the emphasis placed on offense and defense, it’s surprising how consistently it’s the other stuff – turnovers and special teams – that affects the outcome of football games.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Over the course of the season, one of the stats we've focused on here on BTB is field position, a metric we've regularly reviewed as we looked at snap counts during the season.

Quite often when analyzing stats, the focus is on total offense, total defense, individual player stats etc. All stats that can easily become irrelevant if field position is a big factor in a game, as it has for the Cowboys over the latter part of the season:

Field Position Differential

SF
TEN STL NO HOU SEA NYG WAS ARI JAC NYG PHI CHI PHI IND WAS DET
Opponent 317 226 221 259 308 387 297 296 374 336 273 371 249 294 244 359 203
Cowboys 180 307 233 339 268 286 306 214 253 460 353 294 400 470 422 389 326
Difference -137 +81 +12 +80 -40 -101 +9 -82 -212 +124 +80 -77 +151 +176 +178 +30 +123
Result L W W W W W W L L W W L W W W W W

One of the many reasons the Cowboys won against the Lions is that the Cowboys didn't allow Detroit to have any short fields to start their drives over the entire game (anything beyond a teams’ own 40-yard line is a 'short field'). By contrast, the Cowboys had three drives that started with short fields, and only bad luck and an expiring clock prevented them from scoring on all three drives:

Drive #7: Kyle Wilber's interception sets up the Cowboys at the Detroit 18-yard line, but the field goal ultimately misses.

Drive #10: The Lions' 10-yard punt sets up the Cowboys at their 41-yard line, and Terrance Williams eventually proceeds to score the game-winning TD.

Drive #11: The fumble recovery by DeMarcus Lawrence gives the Cowboys the ball on the Detroit 47, which would have been a favorable scoring position had the Cowboys not preferred to do a couple of Landry shifts.

One of the reasons the Lions' 99-yard TD drive on their second possession caused so much fuss is that 80+ yard drives are considered hard scores in the NFL.

Life gets a lot easier when an offense finds itself in ‘short field’ positions. Often, (like we saw versus the Lions) these short fields are the result of a takeaway, a long punt or kickoff return, a missed field goal or a really bad punt for the other team. Two things usually happen with a short field: the threat of a score is significantly higher, and the offense often finds itself emotionally charged as a result of the play that set up the short field. As a defense, you don't want any of that.

Since Week 10, the Cowboys lead the league with an average starting position on offense of 34 yards. Over that same span, their opponents have "only" started on the 25-yard line on average, the fifth best value in the league. Over 89 drives, that multiplies out to an 801-yard advantage, or exactly 100 yards per game. We learned from Bill Parcells during his tenure in Dallas that 100 yards of "hidden yardage" or field position are worth seven points, so the Cowboys' advantage here equates to a theoretical seven points per game.

But here's the kicker: 22 of the Cowboys' 89 drives over the last eight games have started with short fields (drive began beyond the Cowboys' own 40-yard line). That's a short-field percentage of 25%, the third best value in the league over that time frame. Perhaps even more importantly, the Cowboys ended up in a position to score on 19 of those drives (12 TDs, 4 FGs, 3 missed FGs), meaning a short drive was an almost automatic scoring opportunity. And the Cowboys made good use of that. Of the 154 possible points (22 drives x 7 points) on their short fields, the Cowboys made 96 points for a scoring efficiency of 62%, the fourth best value in the league.

If the Cowboys are going to win in Green Bay, they are first going to have to win the field position battle. It's their not-so-secret weapon. And it's got to work to perfection on Sunday.