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"It's Not How You Start, It's How You Finish," Said The Kool Aid Drinker

As we look at the entire 2015 season, it's not how you start, it's how you finish that matters for the Cowboys. But can the Cowboys finish well?

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The 2015 season has reached its halfway point. We've seen each team play at least eight games each, and we have a pretty good idea of which teams are good this year, which aren't, and which teams could still go either way.

For the Cowboys, things are looking bleak. At 2-6, with 160 points scored and 204 points allowed, the Cowboys currently look like they're queuing up for a top five draft pick. And unless they find a way to win at least seven of their remaining eight games, this season cannot be salvaged.

So the question is, can the Cowboys engineer what would be an historic turnaround and finish the season with a winning record? If their current six-win losing streak is anything to go by, certainly not, but the Cowboys may be more than just the sum of the last six games, and with Tony Romo coming back, perhaps the old old truism holds that "it's not how you start but how you finish."

To get a better feel for what could be possible over the last eight games, we turn to the trusty Pythagorean Formula and some small-sample-size math. It's been a while since we last looked at the formula, so allow me to get our newer readers caught up on the concept.

Bill James, the granddaddy of all baseball stats, found that the record of a baseball team can be approximated by taking the square of runs scored and dividing it by the square of runs scored plus the square of runs allowed. The formula was later revised by Daryl Morey (then a statistician for STATS, Inc., since 2007 General Manager of the Houston Rockets), who developed the following NFL version of the formula:

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

The formula is called the Pythagorean theorem and is built on the premise that a team's true strength can be measured more accurately by looking at points scored and points allowed, rather than by looking at wins and losses.

With the 160 points scored and 204 points allowed by the Cowboys over eight games so far, the Pythagorean Projection is for 4.9 wins for the 2015 season. That's not exactly encouraging, but the Cowboys team that plays the next eight games is likely to be better than the team that played the last eight games. But will the Cowboys be good enough over the next eight games?

Like many stats used in football, the Pythagorean is susceptible to sample size issues, so we have to use some caution when interpreting its results. Having said that, let's look at a couple of splits.

The first split we'll look at is by quarterback. Tony Romo started the first two games, which the Cowboys both won. Does that mean a Romo-led Cowboys team will win all remaining games once Romo is back? And how bad were the Weeden- and Cassel-led teams really? The Pythagorean gives you a win projection for each QB:

Win Projection by Quarterback
Games QB Points For Points Against Full season win projection
1-2 Romo 47 36 10.4
3-5 Weeden 54 95 3.3
6-8 Cassel 59 73 6.3

Unfortunately, those numbers don't look like something to get your hopes up about, at least not if you're expecting a 7-1 finish. "If Romo had stayed healthy" the Cowboys could conceivably have ended up a 10- or 11-win team, and almost certainly would have made the playoffs. But Romo didn't. And with the Cowboys now down 2-6, even a Romo-led team, assuming the team plays like it did in the first two games of the season, is projected to finish the season no better than 5-3 (the equivalent of a 10-6 full season projection). And we can forget about a Matt Cassel-led Cowboys team making the playoffs. So what now?

If the stat doesn't fit, you must redo it. Which is exactly what we'll do next, by looking at the first and second half of last season. Remember, we're looking for the Cowboys to finish at least 7-1, which would take something close to a 14-2 full season win projection.

Win Projection by 2014 performance
Games Points For Points Against Full season win projection
1-8 213 167 10.2
9-16 254 185 10.9

The win projection here suggests that the 12-4 Cowboys performed like a 10- or 11-win team but got lucky along the way and collected a win or two more than their performance as measured by the Pythagorean would have warranted. No shame in that, but the numbers here suggest that even playing at a 2014 level, the Cowboys will find it hard to finish 7-1.

On to the next and final set of stats where we look at the performance by quarter this season:

Win Projection by Quarters, 2015
Quarters Points For Points Against Win Projection
1st 39 23 12.4
2nd 40 54 5.3
3rd 30 41 5.2
4th & OT 51 86 3.8

Here we have it in black and white: The Cowboys played like a team competing for a top five pick in the draft and like a team competing for the playoffs, often in the same game, which has made being a Cowboys fan an extremely frustrating experience this season. But the performance in the first quarter at least gives reason for some hope.

If the Cowboys had played all eight games like they played the first quarter of their games this season, they'd very likely be comfortably leading the NFC East with a 6-2 record, even with Brandon Weeden or Matt Cassel under center. Think about that for a minute. Unfortunately for the Cowboys, things unraveled quickly after the first quarter.

If the Cowboys could maintain their first-quarter performance over an entire game, and have a little Pythagorean luck to go along with it, they could finish the season with a 7-1 record in their next eight games.

But there are very specific issues why they have collapsed late in almost every game this season. And not all of those issues will magically disappear if Romo returns, even if he returns in MVP form.

We know the Cowboys offense can be an explosive, high-scoring unit. But they need to find a way to do it consistently. The Cowboys need to figure out their issues on defense, but they also have to ask themselves some tough questions about their personnel, scheme, playcalling and anything else that could get them to perform consistently they way they have done in the first quarter of games this season. And eight games may not be enough to get all of that figured out.

As we look at the entire 2015 season, it's not how you start, it's how you finish that matters for the Cowboys. But when we look at individual games, they've got to find a way to finish the way they started them.

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