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Cowboys can’t continue relying on winning close games to succeed

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2018 was a thrilling season as Dallas came back to take the NFC East after a 3-5 start. But they did so by slim margins, and that is not sustainable.

Philadelphia Eagles v Dallas Cowboys
Remember this lucky bounce?
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

This week, our blog network, SBN, has been doing “what if” posts (for examples we ran earlier, see here and here). Most of these are team-specific, but sometimes offerings at other sites also have something relevant to say about the Dallas Cowboys. That was the case in a piece at our sister site Pride of Detroit, which, as you may have guessed, covers the Lions. Here is the premise:

But, perhaps the most common what-if game played by fans is “what if we had just won that game?” There are so many close games to each NFL season. In 2018, teams averaged 8.5 games decided by just one score, meaning over half of the games in the NFL had the narrowest of margins.

Studies have proven that year-to-year records in one-score games are highly variable. In other words, if a team had a good record in one-score games one year, they aren’t any more likely to have a similarly impressive record in close games the following year.

So I decided to see who was—for lack of a better word—lucky last year. Who benefited most from a good record in close games, and what would happen if we took every one-score game and gave it the opposite result. The team that lost a one-score game is now the team that won the one-score game. How would’ve that affected the 2018 standings? How does it project to 2019?

Just to clarify, in that article any game decided by eight points or less falls into the category of a one-score game. An eight point margin can at least be tied with a touchdown and a two point conversion. The idea is that, given the large effect luck has in NFL games where an errant bounce of the oddly shaped ball, among other things, can change things dramatically, one score games are in many ways just a coin flip with a near 50-50 chance of going either way. There are games where the final margin is not really indicative of how close things actually were, especially, as the author notes, when the losing team puts up a meaningless score too late to change the outcome. But in general, unless you win or lose by more than those eight points, the game could easily have gone the other way.

As it turns out, the Cowboys played in twelve one-score contests in the 2018 regular season, and both their playoff games also fit. They only really ran away with one game, the 40-7 offensive explosion against the Jacksonville Jaguars. On the flip side, they only had one true blowout loss in the regular season to the Indianapolis Colts, with a couple of two-score losses as well. (I define a blowout as at least three scores, or 17 or more points.)

So what did the exercise in the article from POD come up with for a “what-if” record for the Cowboys?

It ain’t good.

Cowboys: 5-11 (-5)

The (-5) is the change from the real results of 10-6 that gave Dallas the NFC East crown. Only the Miami Dolphins had a bigger swing at -6, while the Los Angeles Rams, who also went on to the Super Bowl, as you might remember, had the same as Dallas. Oddly, no team would have improved more than four games under these criteria.

This is something that has been looked at before. Our Michael Strawn examined the success and failure rates of the Cowboys in one score games back at the end of the 2017 season. He found a good bit of correlation between overall record and one score game results, so he was not sure of just how much luck played a part. Still, it is widely believed that a high percentage of one-score victories is unsustainable.

The solution is obvious: score more points. And that may be a clue as to just why the Cowboys were in so many of these close affairs in 2018.

There was an apparent tendency under former offensive coordinator Scott Linehan to play it close to the vest when he had a lead. In other words, the conservative and unimaginative play-calling just got more conservative and easier to predict when the team had a lead. That, in turn, led to stalled drives and punts, rather than scoring opportunities. Another way to put it is that the Cowboys played to not lose when they got ahead. It is a form of situational football, and it is not a wise one. To use another football cliché, if you let the other team hang around, you are playing with fire.

There needs to be a different philosophy, one that hopefully Kellen Moore will bring to the team. If you have the football, you play to score, and you play to score touchdowns rather than field goals whenever possible. No safe plays to set up a punt, no running the ball to position the kicker better. Be less concerned about controlling the clock, and more about using the time to get on the scoreboard. Every call should be designed to either move the sticks or get into the end zone. Yes, this is another vote in favor of more passing and less running, especially on first and ten. But that is how you build up a bigger margin in your favor, avoiding those close scores and reducing the impact of random things, like a missed call.

Of course, there are still going to be one-score games, and you want to come out on top of those as well. It is interesting that the NFC representative in the Super Bowl was in much the same boat as the Cowboys. That is a bit deceptive, since they only had seven one score games in total, but the were winning them at about the same rate as Dallas. In contrast, the Rams had four blowout wins, and two more two score victories.

We have talked a lot about the changes that Moore should bring to the Cowboys’ offense, and expressed concern about whether he will be allowed enough freedom by head coach Jason Garrett. But this goes beyond Xs and Os. It is about the mindset of the offense. That is certainly something where Moore has to come to a meeting of the minds with his boss. Just as his past would indicate that Moore will be innovative, unpredictable, and less conservative, it also hints at more of, for lack of a better term, a “killer instinct”.

I am not prepared to say just how Garrett will come down on that. He ran some pretty wide-open offenses in his offensive coordinator days, and I suspect that Linehan had far too much influence on things. We will have to see.

It might be that the issue will be mitigated just by Moore finding a more effective rhythm to his plays. If he is able to move the ball against defenses better, the scoring could just grow organically out of that.

In any case, the Cowboys would be better off with fewer close games (as long as they are on the winning end). Last season was not something that can be easily repeated.