The last drive of a football game is one that fans often remember, but the first drive is perhaps the most important. A team's initial possession sets the tone for the rest of the game. Acquiring a lead to start the game, particularly by way of a touchdown, can be devastating to the opposition. Even though there are usually over three quarters to play after each team's initial offensive drive, obtaining a 7-0 lead can provide a team with a huge psychological advantage.
That fact is reflected in the stats, as teams that score a touchdown on their first drive win 71 percent of the time. Considering the abundance of time remaining in the game, that's a pretty remarkable number. Even initial drives that result in a field goal are valuable, leading to victory 60 percent of the time.
I think one of the reasons that success on an opening drive is so advantageous is that teams prepare all week to start the game hot. Offensive coordinators generally script plays for the first drive, and the team practices these plays thoroughly throughout the week.
When an offense comes out and can't execute the plays they've practiced all week, that can have a strong psychological effect on the team. Similarly, initial drive success can boost morale and provide confidence that remains for the remainder of the contest.
Since initial drives contain scripted plays, I think they're the best way to judge the effectiveness of a play-caller. Remember, offensive coordinators have all week to dissect the defense and create plays to exploit their weaknesses. Similarly, the first drive after halftime is a nice barometer of play-calling as well, as it is the first attempt for a coordinator to implement his halftime adjustments.
I've tracked all of the Cowboys' drives over the past three years, and there are some interesting numbers in relation to the team's opening drives. In 2009, Jason Garrett's offense was really poor both to open the game and coming out of halftime. To start the game, the Cowboys averaged 5.78 yards-per-play and 1.69 points-per-drive, compared to 6.45 yards-per-play and 2.30 points-per-drive on "non-initial" drives.
The first drives to start the second half were even worse for the Cowboys in 2009. The team racked up only 4.94 yards-per-play and 1.06 points-per-drive – less than half of their points-per-drive on all other drives.
One of the things I've admired about Garrett has been his ability to improve as a coach and play-caller. He's really evolved in his short time as the Cowboys' head coach, and I think that improvement will continue into the future.
Garrett's adaptability is reflected in the team's 2010 initial drive stats. After averaging only 1.38 points-per-drive on initial drives (to start both the game and second half) the previous season, Garrett led the team to 2.13 points-per-drive on initial drives in 2010. The team scored 34 total points on their possessions to begin games, and 34 more points on the initial drives coming out of halftime. Those numbers were superior to the team's average of 1.90 points-per-drive on all other drives.
As you can see above, the trend continued in 2011. The Cowboys averaged a robust 2.35 points-per-drive to start the game and second half—that's way up from the 1.95 points-per-drive the team totaled on all other drives. On first drives alone, the 'Boys managed 2.56 points-per-drive.
On top of that, the Cowboys also averaged 37.06 yards-per-drive on their initial drives in 2010. They totaled an average of only 31.79 yards on all other drives.
Garrett and the Cowboys still have plenty of room for improvement. The New Orleans Saints, for example, averaged 42.44 yards-per-drive and 2.98 points-per-drive in 2011. Are those sort of record-breaking numbers in reach for Dallas? Time will tell.
Garrett has shown in the past that he possesses the adaptability required for NFL head coaching success, however. In a league that is a small-scale version of survival of the fittest, it's coaches like Garrett – the ones who are constantly evolving – that end up on top.