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Momentum In The NFL: Is It Real, Or Simply An Illusion?

Kevin Brady

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The Star News - Cowboys Vs Giants: ITS Staff Notes And Predictions

After New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady brought his team from 25 points down to steal the Super Bowl from the Atlanta Falcons, Fox Sports commentator Joe Buck stated that the Patriots had “redefined momentum here tonight."

It was an incredible comeback, and one that will be remembered forever in football lore. But in terms of Joe Buck’s statement, some exception must be taken by the audience. In reality, the Patriots may have just validated the basis for this research, not re-defined momentum.

We constantly here about "momentum" in the NFL. In 2016, after a 13-2 start, the Dallas Cowboys decided to rest their starters prior to a bye week. They proceeded to lose their final two games, and caught plenty of heat from fans and media about giving up their momentum.

To address both Buck’s comments and the comments of sports pundits everywhere, we ask; is momentum real or merely in the eye of the beholder? Could “momentum” simply be an illusion, and not something that effects game results?

In order to answer these questions, Dr. John Ruscio and I analyzed between game NFL data between the years of 1978 and 2016. The complete sequence of wins and losses for each team’s season was found on ProFootballReference.com, for a total of N = 1,169 seasons.

Data from the two strike-shortened seasons (1982 and 1987) were dropped, leaving N = 1,1141 seasons. Next, seasons consisting of only wins (the 2007 New England Patriots) or only losses (the 2008 Detroit Lions) were omitted from the data set.

Finally, to restrict analyses to wins and losses, all seasons that contained a comparatively rare tie were omitted from the data set, resulting in the final sample of N = 1,075 seasons. Data for each team’s season included all regular season and playoff games. Wins were coded as 1, losses as 0, ties as .5, and bye weeks as 2.

To compare data, we created 1,000 samples of "chance" data. Re-sampling techniques were used to model a random dispersion of wins and losses, holding constant overall team strength. This was done by randomly shuffling the order of wins and losses within a season, while holding constant the team’s total win-loss record and the location of any bye weeks.

In simpler terms, if a team had went 10-6, we used re-sampling techniques to create chance level data by shuffling those 10 wins and 6 losses around to random sequences 1,000 times.

The Questions

Through a series of statistical analyses, we examined a few hypotheses.

First, do bye weeks affect momentum? Assuming the momentum effect exists, then bye weeks should disrupt or end streaks. Next, does the number of runs in a season differ from chance? Momentum would predict a smaller number of runs per season than expected by chance, as team’s streaks will be clustered together.

Next, are games correlated sequentially? Momentum predicts more wins after wins, and losses after losses than expected by chance. Also, how common are winning and losing streaks? Momentum predicts more lengthy streaks than expected by chance.

And, lastly, how many previous games best predict the outcome of a team’s next game? If the momentum effect is real, then the most recent games should best predict a team’s next game.

The Results

What we found disputed all conventional football wisdom.

First, when analyzing bye weeks, we found they had no negative effects on the outcome of a team's next game. In fact, bye weeks actually increased winning percentages post-bye week from about 3%.

So, instead of "killing" momentum, it appears that bye weeks go a long way in improving a team's chances to win the very next week. Still, more research should be done before concluding anything too definite about bye weeks.

Momentum In The NFL: Is It Real, Or Simply An Illusion?

The next question we analyzed was if the number of runs in a season differed from chance. Momentum would predict that team's win and loss streaks will be clustered together, creating fewer runs. However, our data found no evidence of a momentum effect, as the number of runs per season rarely differed significantly from chance.

Momentum In The NFL: Is It Real, Or Simply An Illusion? 2

Let me skip down to the most important of our results, however, since I know this is getting a bit boring for most. Most prior momentum research in sports has tested things similar to us, but our most unique research came when asking how many previous games best predict the outcome of a team’s next game.

Everyone seems to believe that if you've won two in a row, you're much more likely to win game three than if you've lost the previous two games. However, statistical theory would predict the team's first 7,8,9...16 games would be better predictors of future performance than the team's "latest" game.

Of course, conventional wisdom and momentum disagree with statistical theory, but based on our research, conventional wisdom is incorrect.

Momentum In The NFL: Is It Real, Or Simply An Illusion? 4

Here's an example of two of our graphs. As you can see, they both have upward slopes, meaning that as the season progresses, predictions for the team's next game become more accurate. There is also a good match between the observed results (actual NFL data) and our chance-level expectations.

In other words, it's time to retire the recency bias and reactionary analysis we get in sports. Just because the Cowboys may have lost week one, that doesn't mean they are about to spiral down for three or four straight losses.

The true predictor of a team's value comes weeks into the season. For example, when the Cowboys get to 11-1, not when they are 0-1. Patience should be preached, as it is clear the public overreacts to "momentum" after each game.

I know this all is a bit nerdy, but I hope you guys can enjoy a statistical look into the sport we all love. This upcoming year I will be working on coding and analyzing within-game momentum in the NFL. For example, how does a turnover or a dropped pass effect the result of the ensuing drive.

This will be tough, but I am excited to see what the data will say. It is certainly easier for a former football player like myself to believe in within-game momentum than it is to believe in between game momentum.



Die-hard Cowboys fan from the Northeast, so you know I am here to defend the 'boys whenever necessary. Began writing for a WordPress Cowboys Blog, and have been with ITS since 2016.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Cowboysdude

    July 2, 2017 at 4:36 pm

    The Entire NFL is an illusion. The problem is nobody will face it… The NFL filed the same paperwork the WWE filed… that basically says… “This is sports entertainment.” WHICH means legally the NFL can change and shape any outcome to their liking…. means an adult male soap opera and it’s legal. YET sheeple continue to believe that there is this ‘real’ competition.

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Star Blog

Cowboys en Español: Hablemos de los Coaches

Mauricio Rodriguez

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Cowboys en Español: Hablemos de los Coaches
Smiley N. Pool / The Dallas Morning News

Lamentablemente, la temporada 2018 de los Dallas Cowboys ha llegado a su fin. Lo hizo cuando el equipo visitó Los Angeles para intentar sorprender a los Rams en su propio campo en la Ronda Divisional de los playoffs. Ni siquiera con una invasión exitosa de la afición de Dallas pudieron ganarse un pase al Campeonato de Conferencia. En vez de eso, los Cowboys estarán viendo desde casa y la afición estará preguntándose: ¿qué sigue para los Dallas Cowboys?

Parece ya una tradición anual que no podemos dejar pasar. Este momento en el que comenzamos a cuestionar, una vez más, que entrenador es digno de quedarse en la franquicia y cual debe irse. En esta edición de "Cowboys en Español," hablaremos específicamente de los tres principales coaches en el equipo.

Cowboys DC Rod Marinelli Should Be On The Hot Seat

Coordinador Defensivo Rod Marinelli

El futuro del coordinador defensivo de los Dallas Cowboys no se puede tratar sin mencionar a Kris Richard. Fue la defensiva la que llevó al equipo hasta la postemporada y fue la unidad que cargó al equipo en muchas de sus victorias. Incluso con la llegada de Amari Cooper a Dallas, la defensiva fue siempre el pilar de la franquicia esta temporada.

Jaylon Smith y Leighton Vander Esch sorprendentemente se perfilaron como uno de los mejores duos de linebackers en toda la liga, la línea defensiva fue muy exitosa con Randy Gregory y DeMarcus Lawrence en los extremos y con la grata sorpresa que fue Antwaun Woods en el centro. La secundaria vio la mejor temporada en la controversial carrera de Byron Jones e hizo un excelente trabajo con un talento decente, pero no genial.

Todo esto, y el haber terminado como la sexta mejor defensiva en puntos permitidos (20.2) y la quinta mejor contra la corrida (94.6), hace a Rod Marinelli merecedor de una ronda de aplausos. Sin embargo, Richard probablemente merezca más aplausos.

Fue Richard quien revolucionó la defensiva de los Cowboys y la convirtió en un grupo mucho más agresivo. Fue él quien implementó jugadas de "blitz" en el equipo (algo no común con Marinelli) y quien en un punto de la temporada, comenzó a seleccionar las jugadas desde la banda.

En esta posición, me parece que los Dallas Cowboys tienen que enfrentar la dura decisión de decirle a Marinelli que es tiempo de dejarle el puesto a Kris Richard. Si bien no se llevó un trabajo de head coach, es muy probable que le llovieran ofertas a Richard si no se hace con el título de coordinador defensivo en Dallas.

Scott Linehan Acknowledges Need for New "Wrinkles" in Cowboys Offense

Dallas Cowboys OC Scott Linehan (Tim Heitman / USA TODAY Sports)

Coordinador Ofensivo Scott Linehan

Con un equipo tan polémico como este, la afición de Dallas no concuerda en muchas cosas. Sin embargo, lo hacen al hablar del pésimo trabajo que Scott Linehan ha realizado mandando las jugadas en ofensiva. Realmente ha sido doloroso de ver y es en mi opinión, el mayor problema que tiene el equipo actualmente.

Semana tras semana, fuimos testigos de pésimas decisiones en la ofensiva de los Cowboys. Vimos como el equipo se aferraba a llenar la caja de defensivos antes de correr el balón con Ezekiel Elliott. Vimos incontables pases pantalla en tercera oportunidad y largo. Pero no solo es lo que vimos, sino lo que no vimos.

A pesar de la innegable habilidad para correr el balón de Dak Prescott, Linehan se rehusó a explotar esta versatilidad de su QB. Vimos pocos "QB sneaks," jugada donde el mariscal toma el balón bajo centro y consigue poco yardage detrás del empuje de su línea ofensiva.

Siendo honestos, los Cowboys llevan dos años sufriendo por este coordinador. Dejarlo volver en el 2019 sería una decisión ridícula. Los comentarios en la radio de Jason Garrett no lucen prometedores, pero realmente sería una sorpresa que fueran ciertos. Linehan no debe volver... punto.

Jerry Jones Delivers Vote of Confidence in "Real Deal" Jason Garrett

Head Coach Jason Garrett

El futuro en esta posición será muy debatido durante los próximos meses, pero de los tres que hemos mencionado es sin lugar a dudas el más seguro de todos. Nos guste o no, Jason Garrett estará al frente del equipo la próxima temporada.

Garrett está lejos de ser un gran coach y aún le hace falta demostrar que puede cumplir las aspiraciones de los Cowboys de traer un sexto Trofeo Lombardi a casa. Pero siendo honesto, este equipo debería tener suficiente con Garrett y un par de buenos coordinadores. ¿El problema? No hay un par de buenos coordinadores en el equipo.

Sin embargo, Garrett ha demostrado que cuenta con el amor y apoyo de sus jugadores. Ha demostrado que efectivamente, puede ganar la división (lo ha hecho en tres de los últimos cinco años). Este año el equipo le dio la vuelta a la temporada después de comenzar 3-5.

Lo más preocupante en mi opinión, es la falta de urgencia para despedir a Linehan, por ejemplo. Quizá a puerta cerrada Garrett quiere un cambio en su staff, pero nunca lo sabremos.

Jason Garrett no es un coach excelente, pero podría ser suficiente para llevar a los Cowboys a un Super Bowl si tiene un equipo adecuado. Todo parece indicar que su trabajo está seguro (incluso más de lo que pensamos) así que es tiempo de esperar que se arreglen sus coordinadores.

Tell me what you think about "Cowboys en Español: Hablemos de los Coaches" in the comments below, or tweet me @MauNFL and let’s talk football! If you like football and are looking for a Dallas Cowboys show in Spanish, don’t miss my weekly Facebook Live! show, Primero Cowboys!



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Star Blog

2018 Draft Class Season Review: LB Leighton Vander Esch

Kevin Brady

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Leighton Vander Esch Lands on List of NFL's Top 10 Rookies

As the first round draft pick of America's Team, any player would be under a ton of pressure from all angles. Whether it's from the fans on the outside or the organization on the inside, the expectations around being a first round pick for the Cowboys are immense. But the pressure placed upon linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, from the second he was announced as the 19th overall draft pick, was second to none.

It felt like Cowboys Nation let out a collective groan when Vander Esch was taken, with fans hoping for a more glamorous first round selection. Someone like wide receiver Calvin Ridley or edge rusher Harold Landry would've done the trick, but after Vander Esch's rookie season it's hard to imagine either of those players would have had the impact Vander Esch did in 2018.

Though he didn't start a game until week 4, and didn't become the unquestioned full-time starting WILL until week 10, Vander Esch earned Pro Bowl honors for his rookie season. Tallying 140 total tackles and 2 interceptions, Vander Esch made his presence felt week in and week out.

No counting stats can fully measure Leighton Vander Esch's impact as a rookie, however.

Prior to the 2018 season, the Cowboys defensive success often came down to the health of Sean Lee. When available and playing at his best, Lee led an overachieving Cowboys defense to solid performances each week. But, when Lee went out (as he often did), the entire Cowboys defense seemed to fall apart.5 Studs and Duds From the Dallas Cowboys 2018 Season

This year, though, that all changed. When Sean Lee was out with injury the Cowboys defense got better. Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith became a versatile, hard hitting tandem the NFL immediately feared, and helped to direct the Cowboys defense to signature wins throughout the 2018 season.

There are arguments against taking any off-ball linebacker in the first round, as the value of the position has been questioned due to the new style of offense in the NFL. Nowadays linebackers are relegated to two-down players, taken off the field in favor of faster defensive backs on critical passing downs.

Leighton Vander Esch is athletic enough to be both an old school run stopper, but also a three down linebacker in today's fast paced NFL.

Despite the doubts which surrounded the pick, the Cowboys absolutely nailed their first round selection in 2018. And Leighton Vander Esch made Dallas' front office look like geniuses each and every Sunday.



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Star Blog

What Is The Cowboys Most Pressing Offseason Need?

Kevin Brady

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Can we Believe General Manager Jerry Jones?

Finishing their season with a Division Round loss, Dallas Cowboys fans are getting a somewhat late start on the 2019 offseason. Of course, we'd much rather a later start, but the results are what they are.

Now Dallas must get better, and re-tool before heading into Dak Prescott's fourth season, and the Cowboys' 2019 campaign. Though they didn't feel all that close to a championship this season, looking around the roster, it's actually tough to identify one key need the Cowboys must address.

They are filled with young, talented players that they have high hopes for across the board. And in the places they are "older," such as across the offensive line, they have established veterans who aren't going anywhere anytime soon.

So what is the Cowboys' most pressing offseason need?

Well, despite already using their 2019 first round pick to address it, the answer very well might be wide receiver.

Adding Amari Cooper midseason provided a massive jolt to the Cowboys previously anemic passing attack, but on his own he is not enough to take this passing game to where it needs to be to compete in this new NFL.

Third round pick Michael Gallup is going to be a very good pro, and progressed really well as his rookie season went on. I think he can play opposite Amari Cooper nicely, and be the number two option in the passing game going forward.

Though arguably their best wide out against man coverage, Cole Beasley is a free agent, and if the reports are true about Scott Linehan returning in 2019 it could very well mean Beasley will not be opting to sign back with Dallas.

Regardless of Beasley's decision, however, the Cowboys need to seriously evaluate their pass catchers heading into next season.

This is a passing league. The rules have dictated that you must be able to pass the ball efficiently if you want to compete with the best of the best around the NFL. To take the next step in their progression, and reach an NFC title game and/or Super Bowl, Dak Prescott will need to have as explosive a group of pass catchers as possible.

The Cowboys have already taken solid steps to making this a reality, but another move or two this offseason could go a long way to putting Dallas in the conversation with teams like the Rams and the Saints in 2019.



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