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

Kevin Brady



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, 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 am currently a college student. Lets get going.

1 Comment
  • Cowboysdude

    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.

Star Blog

Sean’s Scout: WR Deonte Thompson A Vertical Threat for Dallas Cowboys

Sean Martin



Sean's Scout: WR Deonte Thompson A Vertical Threat for Dallas Cowboys

Finally addressing their underwhelming cast of wide receivers, the Dallas Cowboys signed journeyman Deonte Thompson yesterday. The seventh-year pro spent 2017 with both the Chicago Bears and Buffalo Bills, hauling in 38 passes for 555 yards and two touchdowns.

Thompson was undrafted in 2012 out of Florida, making both the Cowboys' free agent signings to date former UDFAs. The Cowboys added LB Joe Thomas earlier in the week, who you can learn more about in Sean's Scout as well.

In desperate need of speed and play making ability on the outside, here is a look at what WR Deonte Thompson can bring to the Dallas Cowboys.

WR Deonte Thompson: Strengths

Thompson1 - Streamable

Check out this video on Streamable using your phone, tablet or desktop.

Deonte Thompson plays with a great understanding of his own frame, using his length to give defensive backs problems up the field. Not a true "burner", Thompson takes some time to accelerate down the field, but can separate vertically.

Thompson runs smooth routes, using his long strides to get on DBs in a hurry. Once in position to free himself at the stem of a route, Thompson showed the ability to consistently turn his hips and complete a number of underneath and deep routes at a high level.

Thompson2 - Streamable

Check out this video on Streamable using your phone, tablet or desktop.

Deonte Thompson may not win on many throws "above the rim", but he is above average at the catch point securing passes with his strong hands.

Snagging the ball outside of his frame is not much of an issue for Thompson, who makes the most of his run-after-the-catch opportunities by effortlessly receiving the ball in stride.

At this stage of his career, Thompson may not be an every down player, but this is a player the Cowboys can absolutely find a way to get involved in their sputtering passing offense next season - at the very least replacing the role of FA WR Brice Butler.

WR Deonte Thompson: Weaknesses

Deonte Thompson should not be expected to go over the top on many defenses for the Cowboys in 2018. While the traits are there to flash as that sort of player, Thompson simply is not at his best trying to track down deep vertical passes.

When Thompson does not create separation on his initial burst up the field, there was a tendency for him to get shoved around at the catch point. Still coming up with his fair share of passes, the degree of difficulty on these catches was often increased by his inability to truly play through contact.

This is not a player with a powerful lower body, relying on upper body flex and foot speed to free himself and create plays in space. Overall balance is a strength for Thompson, but he rarely is able to break tackles or move defenders as a blocker in the running game.

WR Deonte Thompson: Summary

Thompson3 - Streamable

Check out this video on Streamable using your phone, tablet or desktop.

The Cowboys should know what they are getting in Deonte Thompson, who has not had the benefit of great quarterback play in recent seasons. The hope in Dallas is that a number of receivers on the bottom of the depth chart can stand out this summer to make the team out of a crowded room.

This group of Ryan Switzer, Lance Lenoir, Noah Brown, and KD Cannon will now include Deonte Thompson - who should have the edge over most of these names.

Thompson won't be the difference in the Cowboys' offense having a bounce back season in 2018, but his raw athleticism and effortless ability to serve as a deep threat could surely make an impact in Dak Prescott's progression.

Tell us what you think about "Sean’s Scout: WR Deonte Thompson A Vertical Threat for Dallas Cowboys" in the comments below. You can also email me at, or Tweet to me at @SeanMartinNFL!

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Star Blog

Using Win Probabilities To Evaluate Decision Making: Cowboys Kick Vs. Raiders

Kevin Brady



Takeaway Tuesday: Cowboys' Defense Silently Shined, Jeff Heath Saved The Season 1
Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia Eagles have surpassed the Dallas Cowboys in more ways than one, but on Super Bowl Sunday, their willingness to "be aggressive" and "take chances" shined through the most. Eagles head coach Doug Pederson was congratulated by the masses for not coaching scared, and instead going for it on key fourth downs and even attempting trick plays.

When you really evaluate those decisions, however, they shouldn't even be thought of as "risky." If anything, they were simply the obvious call.

Over the last few months I have been working with win probability models, looking to validate and refine those available to the public. I can't share too much about the work as of yet (there will hopefully be a published article in the future), but the work is certainly promising.

What I can say is this. Dennis Lock and Dan Nettleton worked to utilize random forests to estimate win probabilities before each play in an NFL game. These "forests" are similar to decision tree machine learning, cycling through random trees of past data to predict future outcomes.

Brian Burke has been utilizing his model for a while now, and Pro Football Reference has a simple, yet effective model as well. For my project, I have been working to find the "best" ways to estimate those win probabilities in order to inform decision making by head coaches and coordinators.

If you aren't utilizing analytics correctly in today's NFL, you're falling behind. And if you aren't willing to take calculated risks based off of what these numbers say and mean, you are really falling behind.

How does this all relate to the Cowboys?

Well, Cowboys Nation has been pretty consistent in their main criticism of head coach Jason Garrett: he's too conservative. They say he coaches scared, and they believe he punts the ball away too often between the 40's. Numbers accumulated by writers such as Bob Sturm and Marcus Mosher back up these claims, but I wanted to examine Garrett's decision making through the win probability lens.

I took to Twitter to ask the fan base for specific scenarios in which they felt Garrett was too conservative. Then, I ran these situations through the win probability model to determine how these decisions affected the outcomes.

Over a series of posts I will detail what the model says about the Cowboys' decision making in these key moments. First, we go back to December of last season where the Cowboys had their season on the line in Oakland.

Cowboys at Raiders, 2017

One instance which was consistently brought up was ironically from a Cowboys win. Yes, a win!

The Raiders had played the Cowboys close all game long, and with their season on the line Dallas was in position to put those pesky Raiders away. Tied at 17 they entered a fourth and goal situation at the Raiders' 1 yard line. The Cowboys decided to kick the field goal and grab a 20-17 lead. While Dallas did hang on to win, this was only because of a miraculous play by Jeff Heath which resulted in a fumble and a touchback.

Many of the fans who tweeted at me seem to think the Cowboys should have went for the touchdown on fourth down, rather than take their three points. But what does the model say?

Prior to the fourth down play, the Cowboys had about an 85% chance to win the game. After kicking the field goal and kicking the ball away to Oakland, that probability went down to just above 80%. Had the Cowboys gone for it and been stuffed at the Raiders' 1 yard line, that probability would have dropped all the way to just over 57%.

But the model does believe that Garrett made the right decision. Of course, had Dallas scored a touchdown, the game would've virtually been over, but the variance in probabilities suggests that kicking the field goal and taking the sure points was a good move.

Next week, I explain where Jason Garrett and company may have gone wrong during a key 4th down decision against the Los Angeles Rams. If you have any suggestions for plays/situations you'd like evaluated, please comment below!

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Star Blog

Cowboys en Español: Nuevas Contrataciones, ¿Podría Ser Allen Hurns la Siguiente?

Mauricio Rodriguez



Cowboys en Español: Nuevas Contrataciones, ¿Podría Ser Allen Hurns la Siguiente?

La agencia libre de los Dallas Cowboys comenzó un poco tarde, siendo el último equipo en toda la liga de la NFL en realizar una contratación este offseason. Ahora, con algunas caras nuevas en el equipo, comienzan las preguntas inevitables. ¿Qué jugadores tendrán un impacto y qué jugadores serán una contratación irrelevante?

Sólo el tiempo lo dirá. Las piezas que añadieron los Cowboys no son agentes libres de gran renombre pero podrían llegar a tener algún impacto en el 2018. Sin embargo, no todas las adquisiciones de Dallas han sido por medio de la agencia libre.

Hace unos días, los Raiders y los Cowboys acordaron un trade por el fullback Jamize Olawale. Días después de perder a Keith Smith (quien fue contratado por... los Raiders), Dallas no quiso echarse todavía otra necesidad encima, así que solucionó rápidamente su hueco en la posición que le abrirá camino a Ezekiel Elliott.

Además de enviar a Olawale a los Cowboys, los Raiders consiguieron una selección de quinta ronda de parte de Dallas y ellos entregaron su sexta ronda. En otras palabras, los Cowboys sólo renunciaron 19 turnos en las rondas tardías del Draft por un fullback que será de ayuda constante para esta ofensiva.

A pesar de ser tres años más grande que Keith Smith, Olawale le brinda a los Cowboys potencial para participar en el juego aéreo así como en el terrestre.

Por la agencia libre, los Cowboys obtuvieron ayuda ofensiva y defensiva.

Dallas Cowboys Sign LB Joe Thomas to 2 Year Deal

Joe Thomas, (no, no el que todos conocemos como uno de los mejores tackles de la historia) el linebacker que viene de los Green Bay Packers, usará la estrella este 2018. Mi compañero y escritor de Staff Sean Martin escribió una excelente pieza analizando a detalle al nuevo defensivo. 

Thomas definitivamente no será un titular, pero sin duda ayudará a un grupo de equipos especiales que necesitan bastante apoyo esta temporada. Además, es un linebacker rápido y atlético que podrá brillar como un jugador de rotación en una defensiva que incluye a Sean Lee y a Jaylon Smith.

Esta contratación no hace que los Cowboys dejen de tener una gran necesidad por un LB, pero da una profundidad que urgía a la posición.

Questions Surround Cowboys WR Position After Deonte Thompson Signing

El último movimiento y quizá el más discutido por los aficionados de los Cowboys es la adquisición de Deonte Thompson. Un receptor abierto que ha batallado para conseguir una casa en la NFL llega a un equipo que cuenta con nombres como Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams y Cole Beasley, pero que aún necesita mucho más producción.

¿Acaso la adición de Thompson al roster hace que WR deje de ser una necesidad para el equipo de los Cowboys? Claro que no, pero añade un talento que quizá pueda ayudar al equipo en ciertos aspectos.

Thompson es un jugador muy rápido, lo cual es algo que esta ofensiva necesita para abrir el campo un poco más. Un corredor de rutas bastante sólido con manos seguras. Thompson viene probablemente a ser una versión mejorada de Brice Butler por $2.5M.

Quizá fue un error de parte de la administración garantizarle un millón de su contrato. ¿Por qué garantizarle dinero a un jugador que ni siquiera debería tener un lugar asegurado en el equipo? Sin embargo, Thompson parece ser un contribuidor a la ofensiva.

Pero no fue el WR en la agencia libre del que se ha hablado esta semana en el mundo de los Dallas Cowboys. De hecho, aún después de firmar su contrato, no es el más discutido entre los aficionados.

Allen Hurns, receptor que fue cortado de Jacksonville, es un jugador que podría llegar a hacer un impacto inmediato en la ofensiva de Dak Prescott y proveerle al QB un potencial mejor amigo. A pesar de que muchos esperarían que conseguir a Hurns significaría decirle adiós a Dez Bryant, la verdad es que no sería necesario.

Hurns podría tomar el rol que Terrance Williams posee ahora como receptor "Z" y llevar a esta ofensiva a otro nivel. Todd Archer de ESPN reportó que la reciente adquisición de Deonte Thompson no significa que la posibilidad de ver a Hurns usando la estrella ha acabado.

Todos queremos ver acción en la agencia libre, aunque a veces lo sensato sea ser conservadores. Así como muchos aficionados de los Cowboys se quejan de la falta de movimientos, muchos aficionados de los Steelers y los Patriots agradecen que sus equipos tengan esta filosofía de no gastar mucho en agencia libre.

La diferencia son los resultados en el campo.

Sin embargo, Allen Hurns definitivamente parece como una opción muy viable para los Cowboys, y una adición que simplemente tendría mucho sentido. Sólo queda esperar si lograrán firmarlo o si un equipo (como los Jets, quienes han mostrado mucho interés y tienen bastante espacio en el tope salarial) logra convencerlo de no regresar a Dallas.

Por ahora, esperamos. Quizá hasta que los Cowboys firmen a alguien más. O quizá hasta la llegada del NFL Draft.

Tell me what you think about "Cowboys en Español: Nuevas Contrataciones, ¿Podría Ser Allen Hurns la Siguiente?" in the comments below, or tweet me @PepoR99 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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