RTN: Looking Into Early-Game Struggles; Late-Game Heroics

Everyone has a game day routine and a preferred way to catch Cowboys games each week. For me, an admitted nerd, a laptop and iPad are essential. On the computer, I post sporadically on Twitter while keeping an eye on the ever-important fantasy lineups. I spend the majority of my time on my iPad, though, focusing intently on the win probability graphs at Advanced NFL Stats.

Whether you're a stat geek or not, the graphs make for an incredible addition to your game-day setup. Using historical game data, Advanced NFL stats estimates the probability of each team winning a game at any given time. The graphs are updated in real time, so you can instantly see how each play in a game affects the Cowboys' odds of winning. The graphs consider the score, time remaining, field position, down-and-distance, and possession to calculate the chances of victory for both squads.

Viewing games through this lens has really changed the way I watch Cowboys games. There are all kinds of amazing insights you can acquire from tracking win probability. You see just how much it hurts to punt. You witness the detrimental effects of poor first-down production. When there's a game-breaking play – an interception return for a touchdown in a tie game, for example – you can see exactly how much it affects the probable outcome.

A Few Unique Graphs

One of the coolest Cowboys win probability graphs from 2012 is the 'Boys' two-point loss to the Ravens in Week 6.

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The game was a close one, with the Cowboys' win probability peaking at 80 percent in the beginning of the second quarter when they held a four-point lead and possessed the ball inside of the Ravens' 15-yard line. This sort of win probability distribution is pretty normal – until we reach the end of the fourth quarter.

The Cowboys' win probability pulsated from nearly zero when down by eight with under two minutes to go, up to 21 percent when they scored a late touchdown, then down under 10 percent when they failed to convert on a two-point conversion, and then back up to as high as 53 percent when a late pass interference penalty gave Dallas a first-and-10 at the Ravens' 34-yard line with 26 seconds remaining in a 31-29 game. The win probability obviously dropped to zero when Dan Bailey missed a potential game-winning field goal.

The Cowboys' big Week 16 matchup with the Saints was another thriller.

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Down by seven points with under 30 seconds to play and facing a fourth-and-10 at the Saints' 19-yard line, the Cowboys had just a one percent chance of winning. When Tony Romo hit Miles Austin in the end zone for the game-tying score, the Cowboys' win probability immediately jumped to 48 percent – one of the biggest swings of the year.

Coming Out Cold

As you examine the Cowboys' 2012 win probability graphs, one of the main things that stands out is exactly how poorly the team started games. I calculated the Cowboys' average win probability after each quarter and charted it below.

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In the typical game, the Cowboys owned only a 43.0 percent probability to win after the first quarter. By the time halftime rolled around, the Cowboys had just a 36.9 percent chance to win, on average. With the average team's halftime win probability obviously 50 percent, it's clear that the Cowboys were pretty poor to begin games in 2012. How bad? Well, if the Cowboys have the same amount of first half success in 2013, an overall 36.9 percent halftime win probability, their most likely final season record will be 6-10.

It's pretty amazing to see the staggering jump in win probability after the third quarter. At the end of a game, the Cowboys have obviously either won or lost, meaning their "win probability" is either zero or 100 percent. It's pretty remarkably that they increased their win probability from 35.0 percent at the end of the third quarter to 50 percent, an 8-8 record, at the end of games. [embedded_ad]

While it's a good thing that the 'Boys were able to overcome late-game deficits, it doesn't bode well for the future. The Cowboys got extremely unlucky with injuries in 2012, but based solely on how they played (as opposed to who was playing), the Cowboys were actually very fortunate to be 8-8.

After the first quarter, the Cowboys were favorites in just six of their 16 games. By halftime, the Cowboys had a greater than 50 percent win probability in just five contests, and after the third quarter, they were favored in only four games, including zero after Week 8. Actually, after that second matchup with the Giants, the Cowboys' win probability after the typical third quarter was just 26 percent, yet they still managed to go 5-4 during that stretch!

So while the Cowboys have a lot of hope for the 2013 season, the truth is that based on their horrendous early-game play, it's a wonder they were able to finish the season at 8-8.

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