Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Hindsight = 20/20: The 2011 Dallas Cowboys

The 2011 Dallas Cowboys stand at 2-3 -- but remain a team to be reckoned with.  The Cowboys have had a tough schedule, playing the likes of the Jets, Patriots & Lions.  The Cowboys suffered three very difficult fourth-quarter losses to these teams, by a combined 11 points.  Without the three losses, fans and the media wouldn't be hounding Tony Romo & the Cowboys...  Let's rewind and take a look at the Cowboys' already-turbulent season (and we have just completed Week 6)!

Tough Loss #1 (NY Jets)

In Week 1, the Cowboys lost a tough game, as reported by the Washington Post, with this blazing headline "Tony Romo turnovers doom Dallas Cowboys in loss to New York Jets" --

After jumping out to an early lead against Rex Ryan and the New York Jets, the Dallas Cowboys failed to hold on to a 14-point fourth quarter advantage, ultimately conceding a Nick Folk 50-yard field goal that secured the Jets’ winning margin. 
Wide receiver Plaxico Burress had a touchdown catch as the Jets overcame a 14-point deficit in the fourth quarter to beat the Dallas Cowboys, 27-24

Read more here:

Tough Loss #2 (Detroit Lions)

A few weeks later, after beating San Francisco and Washington (also in close games), Dallas lost a heart-breaker to up-and-coming Detroit -- after holding a 27-3 third quarter lead.  ESPN reports:
the Lions provided further proof they're a legitimate contender by turning a 24-point, third-quarter deficit into a 34-30 victory over the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday.
 Detroit's defense started the rally with interceptions returned for touchdowns on consecutive drives, then Stafford and Calvin Johnson took over from there, hooking up for a pair of touchdowns in the final period, including a 2-yarder for the winning points with 1:39 left.

The "interceptions returned for touchdowns" on consecutive drives did not do much for Tony Romo's reputation.  Fans complained about the interceptions and play-calling.  The bad taste of another bitter loss was particularly bad for the continued hammering of Romo and the Cowboys (in the press and otherwise), with ESPN reporting:

Tony Romo and the Cowboys (2-2) continued to show there's no lead and no deficit too big for them. They blew a 14-point fourth-quarter lead for the first time in franchise history in the opener, and this was their largest lead blown in a loss in franchise history. 


On Tony Romo and Volatility

After the loss to Detroit, fans and writers said that Tony Romo was on the "hot seat" -- and in some cases, wanted him benched.  Lest we forget, Romo remains one of the best QBs in NFL history, with the fifth-best career quarterback rating in NFL history.

While it is true that Romo and the Cowboys have suffered more than a few painful losses (including playoff losses), this may be  a combination of bad luck and "volatility" (importance of key plays) -- being magnified by a huge fan base (focusing on the negative, and airing out their feelings).  A cursory look at Romo's stats does not show systematic under-performance during the fourth quarter.

In the game of backgammon, experts often talk about "volatility," key points in the game, and the use of the doubling cube to exploit the situation.  Similarly, in the financial markets, high volatility implies that prices are likely to change considerably.  In football, concepts of volatility can be combined with game theory to help maximize in-game results for the team.

Tough Loss #3: New England Patriots

Even with these difficult losses coming into this past weekend, Dallas is considered to be one of the better NFL teams.  And they proved their mettle, with a great showing against the Patriots.  The Cowboys led the Patriots 16-13 with 3:36 left in the game.  This is when controversy arose:

With the lead and just 3:36 left to go, the Cowboys ran the ball three times -- and went three-and-out, with a penalty, as follows:

  • First and 10 at the Dallas 28 (3:36): run up the middle for -2
  • Second and 12 at the Dallas 26 (2:52): run right tackle for -1
  • Timeout #1 by NE at 2:47
  • Third and 13 at Dallas 25 (2:47): penalty on Dallas (False start)
  • Third and 18 at Dallas 20 (2:47): run right tackle for 8 yards.
Dallas then had to punt and the rest is history, being repeated.  Tom Brady led his Patriots down the field for a winning touchdown.  

Some fans think that the Cowboys played things too safe -- and believe the Cowboys should have passed the ball -- and potentially increasing their chances for a first down.  Here is one example, by an author we highly respect:  


Many of us love sports because drama often plays out and controversies often arise.  Reading so many articles about Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys over the past few months made us think that, "Hindsight is 20/20..."

Dallas is in the bittersweet position of having a large following.  When things go badly, there are many detractors and naysayers.  On the other hand, there is the saying, "Any love is better than no love."

Do we think the Cowboys should have passed the ball?  Using concepts of game theory and volatility, we do not believe that there is any set right or wrong answer for this specific situation.  A simple model of game theory says that the proper strategy is to mix things up.  

Based on this model, taking the riskier path MAY have been a decent path.  However, based on the difficult losses earlier in the season, the risk/reward could have been devastating for an already wounded Romo psyche.  Based on this back-of-the-envelope analysis, we like the decision to run -- and wished, for the Cowboys' sake, that they got a first down -- or that the defense held.

In the end, teams need to execute: in this case, the Dallas offense didn't get the first down with the three rushes -- and the defense couldn't stop Tom Brady's Patriots.  In psychology, people often focus on the negative.  Fans remember losses -- and especially painful losses -- more deeply.


The Cowboys remain in the middle of a tight NFC East race.  The division is one of the strongest in the NFL, with the Eagles (formerly the Dream Team!) in the cellar.  It is also notable that the current leaders of the division, the NY Giants, have one of the toughest schedules in the league for the remainder of the season.  In addition to their strong NFC East divisional rivals, the Giants will face New England, the Jets, New Orleans and Green Bay during the playoff stretch.

Dallas does not have a schedule as difficult as the Giants -- but they will need to execute, be careful of volatility, and use these tough losses as a "stepping stone" rather than as a distraction.


Carlton Chin, CFA, a fund manager and MIT graduate, and Jay Granat, PhD, a psychotherapist, study and quantify concepts of sports analytics and sports psychology that can help teams and sports organizations improve results.  Our work has been featured in the New York Times and Wall St. Journal.  We would like to work with your team or organization -- and welcome research projects related to sports analytics and / or sports psychology.  Recent work has involved the development of computer game simulators that can be used to study game situations and strategies in baseball and football.