Back in 2008, the Detroit Lions were one of the "teams to watch" for a lot of fans and media. They created some buzz in the previous season by starting 6-2, and the squad went 4-0 in the '08 preseason. Yup, things were looking up for the Lions that year, with many anticipating them carrying the momentum from their undefeated preseason into the regular season.
They promptly became the first team in NFL history to lose all 16 games. Oops.
The Cowboys have compiled a strong preseason record over the past decade, winning 62.5 percent of their games. They haven't turned in a losing preseason in any year over that time. Whether that's due to luck or a concerted effort to win is unclear.
Nonetheless, the team has actually won more games in the seasons in which they were mediocre in the preseason than those in which they prospered. In the five years in which the team won just two preseason games, they totaled an average of 10.2 wins in the regular season. In the five years in which they won three preseason games, that number dropped to 7.0 wins per season.
The Cowboys' results aren't typical of the rest of the NFL, however. On a league-wide scale, there is actually a pretty strong correlation between preseason success and regular season wins.
Above, you can see that NFL teams that have won at least three of their preseason games have been more successful than those teams that have struggled in the preseason over the past decade. With 256 NFL games played each year, the difference of over one win per season is pretty substantial.
The question is whether the increased wins that come after a strong preseason are the result of momentum, or rather the result of simply being good. If preseason success really created a momentum effect, we'd expect teams to "start hot" in the regular season.
I tracked the first quarter of each regular season for the 22 teams that have won four preseason games over the past decade. During that time, the most successful of all preseason teams have compiled a combined record of just 43-45 during the first four games of the regular season. Those numbers suggest there isn't too much momentum involved with winning in the preseason.
For the Cowboys, the results are pretty clear; there's no reason to go out of your way to win preseason games. Don't show opponents anything unique, don't play starters longer than necessary, and focus primarily on evaluating young talent.
When you see Tony Romo & Co. get the early yank from the first few preseason games (and not even participate in the final one), don't worry about chemistry or if the first unit is getting enough reps. You know DeMarcus Ware, Jason Witten, Jay Ratliff and the other veterans will be ready to go, so the most important aspect of the preseason for Dallas is simply navigating through it without stepping on the landmine that is a major injury.
Whether the 'Boys end up 4-0 or 0-4 this preseason, it really doesn't matter. All that really counts is being in the best position to win the night of Sept. 5 at the Meadowlands.