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Close-game data reveals the Dallas Cowboys might be poised for something big in 2020

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Looking past the results of 2019 reveals the Cowboys were a pretty good football team.

Dallas Cowboys v New York Giants Photo by Al Pereira/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys are projected to be one of the top teams in the NFL this season. All the odds makers have given the Cowboys favorable percentages when it comes to their Super Bowl chances.

Some people think that is a little presumptuous, as the idea of an 8-8 team from last season who missed the playoffs to be suddenly casts as one of the potential NFC elites is nothing short of absurd. But sometimes, it behooves us to look past the results, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do today.

Looking at their games last season you’ll find a tale of two narratives - either the Cowboys smoked their opponent, or they lost a close game that was completely winnable. Check out these splits:

  • Wins by seven or few points = 0
  • Wins by more than seven points = 8

There were no close victories for the Cowboys last season. They had four 20+ wins last year, and that number jumps to six when you count games won by 18 or more. When the Cowboys won, they usually won big.

At the same time, they didn’t get routed either. At all.

  • Losses by 11 or fewer points = 8
  • Losses by more than 11 points = 0

It’s disappointing that they couldn’t pull out a single win in close games, but it’s also a little satisfying that they never got their butts handed to them even once. Sure, they fell behind big a couple times last year, but in each of those instances they fought their way back enough where they still had a shot in the fourth quarter.

If you grouped all the wins and losses together, you’d come up with an average margin of victory/defeat of:

  • wins = 20
  • losses = 6

That’s a big disparity.

The Cowboys middling .500 record can be blamed on their inability to win close games last season. Here is a breakdown of one-score games (eight points because of the possibility of a two-point conversion) over the last ten years:

There are two stand outs here. First, last year’s struggles in one-score games was their worst mark of the decade. Even the 4-12 team of 2015 had a better success rate than last year’s squad.

Second, the Cowboys were extremely lucky in 2018 to win as many regular season games as they did as they were helped immensely by an impressive 9-3 record in one-score games. It’s amazing that all but one of their wins that season (40-7 win over Jacksonville) consisted of one-score games.

Could one profess that last year’s 8-8 team that missed the playoffs was actually better than the 2018 team that beat Seattle in the Wild Card game and advanced to the Divisional round?

If we took all the one-score games from each of the last ten years and hypothesized that the team finishes with a .500 record in those contests, their adjusted records would be:

Most of those adjusted wins pass the eye test. The only values that don’t line up correctly are the past two seasons. The adjusted wins has last year’s Cowboys as good as the teams from 2014 and 2016. It also suggests that the 2018 season could’ve very easily resulted in a seven-win year had it not be for the good fortune in close games.

To support this claim even further, we introduce another reliable measure, defense-adjusted value over average, or what everyone knows as DVOA. This breaks down every play and compares how a team does in that situation compared to the league average. They also adjust their values based on the strength of the opponent. It’s a useful tool in assessing a team’s performance.

Incorporating DVOA rankings into the mix and our numbers look as follows:

Sure enough, DVOA tells us things we already know like the 2016 team was awesome. But it also supports the idea that this team wasn’t as good as we thought in 2018, but were better than their record showed last season.

The Cowboys were good last year, but they weren’t great because great teams win close games. For Dallas, there were a multitude of factors that caused them to come up short in those contests. For example, all but one of those games included at least one missed field goal. Those missed field goals came back to haunt them because in multiple instances the Cowboys final drive ended on a turnover on downs because they were forced to try to get into the end zone vs. kicking a game-winning field goal.

Special teams was a huge limiter for the Cowboys last season, and it wasn’t just because of Brett Maher. The team had a blocked punt, struggled to return kicks, and overall gave up a lot of real estate in the kicking game.

That is why it’s so refreshing to see that John Fassel has taken over as the Cowboys new special teams coach. And it also comforting that they’ve taken huge steps to correct their kicking woes by adding not one, but two (and possibly three) kickers into the mix as they look for their answer.

If Dallas just had slightly better luck in the close game department, they would’ve taken down the NFC East and made the playoffs. Regression to the mean should work in the Cowboys favor as they look to improve upon what is already a pretty good football team.