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Why Cowboys are headed for an 8-8 record - and have been for a while

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Things haven't been clicking for the Cowboys this year.

New England Patriots v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Things have not been going the Cowboys' way this year, and that's not just a knee-jerk reaction to the last two games, or to Ezekiel Elliott's suspension.

No, things have been out of kilter for one reason or another since Week 1, at least compared to last year. And if things remain the same as they've been for the first 10 games of the year, there's a good chance the Cowboys end up with yet another 8-8 record.

The Pythagorean Formula (for more details, go here) was developed 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 Scored2.37 + Points Allowed2.37

The interesting things about the formula, at least for our purposes today, is you can calculate a projected season win total after every single game. Which is exactly what I did with the cumulative points differentials after each game:

Pythagorean Win Projection development by week
Week Wk 1 Wk 2 Wk 3 Wk 4 Wk 5 Wk 7 Wk 8 Wk 9 Wk 10 Wk 11
Projection 15.8 6.2 8.2 7.8 7.1 8.9 10.2 10.1 9.0 8.0

Obviously, the results here get more robust with every additional data point. After some wild swings in Week 1 and Week 2, the win projection settles in at around eight wins for a while before briefly climbing to 10 wins and then settling back down to eight wins.

If you will, the Cowboys have been an eight-win team since Week 3, with a short-lived uplift during their three-game win streak from Week 6-8. And this far into the season, the data is robust enough to suggest that the Cowboys are not suddenly going to go on a six-game win streak.

Another method to calculate projected wins is via passer rating differential (PRD). We know that PRD is one of the stats most closely linked to winning in the NFL. And PRD can be plugged into a very simple formula to predict win totals in the NFL. The PRD formula (Projected Wins = PRD*0.16+8) has shown a fairly close correlation with the Cowboys' actual wins over the last few years, and here's what the data says about the 2017 team.

Passer Rating Differential development by week
Week Wk 1 Wk 2 Wk 3 Wk 4 Wk 5 Wk 7 Wk 8 Wk 9 Wk 10 Wk 11
PR Offense 90.5 78.2 88.9 90.1 93.1 97.7 96.2 97.5 96.0 89.3
PR Defense 78.8 96.8 95.9 96.5 100.7 96.5 94.6 95.5 96.4 96.3
PRD 11.7 -18.6 -7.0 -6.4 -7.6 1.2 1.7 2.0 -0.4 -7.0
Projected Wins 9.9 5.0 6.9 7.0 6.8 8.2 8.3 8.3 7.9 6.9

The passer rating differential tells basically the same story as the Pythagorean formula, even if the projected win totals are a little lower. Like the previous one, this data set also shows a team that has been oscillating around eight wins for the better part of the season.

And that's what the 2017 Cowboys effectively are: an average team. It'd be easy to blame Elliott's suspension, Tyron Smith's and Sean Lee's injuries, or any of the other hits the Cowboys have taken recently for their 5-5 record. But that 5-5 record has been a long time in the making. Probably since Week 1, when the Cowboys eked out a meager 19 points against the now 2-8 Giants.

And this far into the season, to borrow from Bill Parcells, you are what your record says you are.