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Cowboys current win streak fueled by playing from ahead

Three charts that show the effect a lead has on final results

It sure is fun to be a fan of the Dallas Cowboys right now. Five straight victories. An almost certain NFC East division crown. Three weeks to debate and speculate about the team’s post-season prospects.

This is what NFL fans live for - the promise of near-future success.

There have been lots of articles about the “Amari Effect” and how the team’s offensive numbers have jumped like Dak Prescott’s passing numbers, and how Amari Cooper has been the most productive receiver in the league since joining the Cowboys.

No need to recover that well-covered ground. Instead, let’s see if there is some other nugget of information that could be uncovered from the team’s numbers during this recent win streak. There’s one that, while not exactly breathtaking in the insights it reveals, is worth noting.

Cowboys playing from ahead

Your Dallas Cowboys’ win streak has featured the team:

  • Frequently playing with a lead

Now, that might not seem like a ground-breaking insight. I mean, teams that win NFL games tend to play with leads and teams that lose tend to play with deficits. But it’s instructive to see how dramatically game scenarios have changed during the team’s win streak compared to early in the season.

Here is a break down of each Cowboys game by whether the Cowboys were winning, tied or behind. Here are the results by game:

It doesn’t take a genius to see the dramatic change in the team’s in-game fortunes. Before the win streak kicked off with the first game against Philadelphia, Dallas had only three games when they played with a lead for more than half the game. Those were three games the team won:

  • New York Giants: led 98% of the time
  • Detroit: led 56% of the time
  • Jacksonville: led 89% of the time

We also see that in the team’s five losses they almost never led. Against both Houston and Tennessee, the team enjoyed brief leads but were unable to hold onto them.

By contrast, during the team’s five-game winning streak the team has rarely been forced to play from behind. In fact, in four of the team’s five wins the team has held a lead for at least 60% of the game. The Cowboys have trailed at any point in only two of the five victories. At no point did Dallas trail in the game against:

  • at Philadelphia
  • New Orleans
  • Philadelphia

In fact, the team has trailed only 5% of the time over these five games. By comparison, the team has held a lead for 65% of the time during these same games.

Contrast that with the team’s first eight games when the team trailed nearly half the time (44%) and held a lead for only about 1/3rd of the time (36%).

Why this is more important than it seems

Obviously, every team would prefer to play with a lead rather than a deficit. But past history shows that NFL teams make dramatically more turnovers when playing from behind than when playing with a lead or in a tied game.

Our own OCC outlined this in detail recently. The key quote:

Only 21% of the 430 interceptions thrown last year in the regular season happened when the offense was playing with a lead. 62% of all interceptions occurred when the offense was playing from behind. Most interceptions happen when you’re not playing with a lead.

Here’s a detailed breakdown of the interceptions thrown last year, listed by the score differential at the time when the interceptions were thrown.

Last year, like every year before that, teams threw a lot more interceptions when they were playing from behind than they did when playing with a lead. And when you stop to think about it, the numbers make sense. Once you’re playing from behind you start taking more risks in your passing game in an effort to catch up.

Not only do teams playing from behind throw the ball a lot more often than the teams playing with a lead, they also have those passes intercepted more often. Similarly, a team playing with a lead will generally find it easier to record interceptions on defense.

The stats bear this out. The interception rate (Interceptions divided by passing attempts) increases the further a team is behind; conversely, when playing with a lead teams tend to take fewer risks in the passing game, which in turn leads to fewer mistakes and turnovers.

And what do we see with the Cowboys? We see that the team has seen the number of interceptions increase dramatically from the earlier part of the season.

  • First eight games: 2 interceptions on 250 attempts (0.8%).
  • Last five games: 5 interceptions on 205 attempts (2.4%)

In short,the Cowboys have generated three times as many interceptions per attempt when consistently playing with a lead than when not.

Somewhat miraculously, the Cowboys have won all five of these games by a one-score margin. The stats guys will tell you that winning one-score games at such a rate is unsustainable. But these stats don’t take into account that the Cowboys have been playing with a lead - and almost never playing from a deficit - during this entire run.

That doesn’t mean the team isn’t flirting with disaster. After all, in one-score games a single bounce (say, off a well-defensed slant play that ends up going for a game-clinching touchdown despite being deflected by the defender) or a single dubious official’s call can derail an entire season.

But the fact the team is constantly playing from ahead and almost never playing from behind is a huge positive. You can see how the Cowboys have been playing in advantageous situations from the following:

Only twice in the last five games have the Cowboys ended a quarter with a deficit. That’s a tremendous advantage; the offense is never taking the field feeling like “we have to score” in order to avoid a double-digit deficit.

The reasons behind the Cowboys fortuitous in-game situations is many and well-documented:

  • Improved 3rd down performance
  • Improved passing game performance
  • Stifling defense

But these things are all chicken-and-egg situations. Are the Cowboys enjoying advantageous in-game situations because of improved 3rd down performance....or are they performing better on 3rd down due to constantly playing with a lead?

I have no idea. And honestly, I don’t care. All I know is everything has gotten better.

And there’s no reason to think this can’t be sustained. The reality is the Cowboys have faced a difficult schedule over the last 10 weeks or so. They’ve emerged intact and in position to make a long playoff run.

I’m perfectly happy to accept the results without putting too much scrutiny on how they happened. The NFL is a funny place; teams that are great in September aren’t so good in December and vice-versa.

Your Dallas Cowboys appear to be peaking at the right time and creating the best in-game situations from which to succeed. Let’s hope it continues all the way to a Super Bowl win.

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