The Dallas Cowboys began their season with a loss that was uninspiring and controversial at the same time. In the sidelines stood Mike McCarthy, who fans expected – and still do – to turn things around for a franchise that hasn't made the Super Bowl since the 1995 season.
When McCarthy parted ways with the Green Bay Packers in 2018, it was mainly because of a predictable offense, and what many called an “antiquated” approach to it. There were other factors at play, of course, but that seemed to be the biggest issue.
Cowboys fans expected that to change when McCarthy was hired by Jerry Jones since he spent all of 2019 re-working his approach to the game and taking a step back to evolve as a football coach. McCarthy learned about data analytics in football and how they can help a team make better decisions on and off the field.
It made sense to believe that McCarthy was buying into a trend that's helping teams become more efficient like the Baltimore Ravens, who were very aggressive – and successful – on fourth down in 2019. These decisions were based on analytics.
However, after a week 1 loss to the Los Angeles Rams, McCarthy's Cowboys didn't seem to care much for analytics and better decision making.
The clearest example are the first downs. One of the biggest takeaways the analytics community has shared is the fact that teams need to be more aggressive and efficient on first downs. While many discuss how a team does on third-down situations, teams should avoid them altogether.
“Duh,” you probably just said after reading that last sentence. It sounds obvious, maybe, but teams don't always act like they know that. The Cowboys didn't, at least.
You see, to avoid third downs, you need to be more aggressive starting by first down, which means passing the ball more often. That way, it's harder to end up in a second and long situation which subsequently means it's harder to end up playing the “money” down, a.k.a. third down.
Dallas on first down….
17 runs to 12 passes
runs averaged 4.8 YPC
passes avg'd 11.1 YPA
Dak completed 11 of 12 att
— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) September 14, 2020
This was one of the Cowboys' biggest issues last year and plenty of us thought that would change now that Kellen Moore would be paired with McCarthy instead of Jason Garrett. However, the Cowboys stuck with the run on first down even though Dak Prescott was killing it throwing on first.
It's fair to point out that the Cowboys did pretty bad on third downs, which made the first down decisions look worse. Third down efficiency isn't predictive about future third-down efficiency, which means the Cowboys could be expected to do a better job on third down the road.
3-12 on 3rd downs just ain't going to cut it moving forward either.
— John Owning (@JohnOwning) September 14, 2020
McCarthy, to his credit, went for it on fourth down and three while being down by three points in the fourth quarter. The Cowboys decided to go for it instead of kicking the field goal to win it. Since they didn't get it and ended up losing the game by three, this particular play-call will be one of the biggest debates this week in sports.
It was the right call. It didn't work out, but regardless of the result, the decision to go for it was the correct one. The logic behind it is winning the game in regulation, which means not aiming for overtime, where teams literally flip a coin to decide who gets the ball first and the odds of winning the game are close to 50%.
The decision made was based on win probabilities and what gives you the best shot at winning. Going for it? Or kicking the FG? Numerically, it's going for it.
It's a risk-reward decision taken knowing that if you don't move the chains, your opponent is not in a favorable position on the field anyway and you can still get the stop. It's a decision made knowing that if you get the first down and eventually score a touchdown, it's game over. Meanwhile, if you kick the three, your opponent can play for the field goal with the clock on his favor. And even if they don't score and the game remains tied, You have a 50-50 shot at winning on OT.
This is not theory only, of course. Data analytics it's all about using historical data to see what's more likely to happen based on past results.
It's aggressive, and loss aversion gets in the way of making decisions that help your football team, but it's still the right call to make.
But even though McCarthy made that decision on fourth down, what was running on third and six while down late in the fourth quarter about? Kellen Moore calls the plays, let's not forget about that, but paired with first down play-calling, the loss to the Rams was a bad look for a coaching staff that's been mentioning analytics since McCarthy's arrival.
This is just the first of 16 games for the Cowboys, but judging by week 1, it didn't seem like this team bought into analytics like they made us believe. We'll see how that changes in the upcoming weeks. It feels like it has to.