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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 am currently a college student. Lets get going.

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1 Comment
  • http://www.dallascowboyschat.com 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.

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The Cowboys Blueprint for Success has been Set

Shane Carter

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Monday Morning Hangover: Cowboys Dominate Jaguars Top-Ranked Defense 1

The Cowboys victory against the Jaguars was a reminder to everyone just how good Dak Prescott & Co. can be. They ran and threw all over the Jaguars defense like they were high school level. It was a one-sided, lambs to the slaughter type of game.

At the end of the game, it left all of us wondering, "where has this team been all year?"

Throughout the season, the Cowboys showed both dominance and incompetence on the offensive side of the football. One game the team moves the ball up and down the field with ease, the next game the offense looks inept. Last Sunday’s game versus Jacksonville shows that Dallas can be successful the rest of the season, if they continue to play as such.

Run the ball

This team was built to run the football. Look at the offensive line, their type of tight ends, their quarterback, and of course Ezekiel Elliott.

The line is full of first round talent, the tight ends are block-first types (sans Rico Gathers), Dak Prescott gives them another dimension with the mobile ability in and out of the pocket, and Elliott is one of if not the best running back in the league.

The concept of running the football should not be lost on this team.

If they let Elliott run 20 or more times per game, allow Prescott to run outside of the pocket and not just be a stand-still passer, and mix in some of Rod Smith and Tavon Austin (when healthy) to give their main runner a break, they can run on anyone.

Let Dak Move Around

What makes Dak Prescott so special to this team isn’t just his leadership, but also his ability to extend plays. He stays in the pocket if he has to but he’s so skilled outside with his legs. Zone read, play action, tuck and run, throw on the run, etc., any excuse to get Dak Prescott on the move is a plus. Defenses respect his ability to move so much that the Cowboys receivers get open more as a result.

The worst thing a coaching staff can do to a mobile quarterback is to keep him standing still when he can do so much more with his feet. Don’t buy a Corvette and keep it locked up in the garage. The best way for Dak Prescott to stay consistent and succeed as a passer is to let Dak be Dak.

Keep Blitzing

The Cowboys have found a serious advantage that they’ve lacked in years past. Led by DeMarcus Lawrence and Jaylon Smith, the Cowboys have 18 sacks through the first six games of the season.

Throw in the contributions of players like Taco Charlton, Tyrone Crawford, and Randy Gregory, among others, and you’ve got the deepest pass rush the Cowboys have had in years.

The team is 7th in the league in sacks and there seems to be no sign of stopping and no shortage of players who can get to the quarterback. These numbers look like they’ll only go up from here and with the amount of players the Cowboys have to do so, Jacksonville looks like it was only a taste of what’s to come.

Creative Play Calling

A little more than a week ago Jerry Jones stated that the Cowboys offense looked similar to the L.A. Rams - a hilarious notion by most accounts, right?

The Cowboys offensive scheme had been mocked all season for being both predictable and out of date. I’m not sure how many times you can run a three tight end set and expect success when it hadn't happened yet.

The team would run then throw on first and second downs, and depending on yardage, would set up a predictable third down attempt.

Against Jacksonville, we saw more read option than we’ve seen all year. Dak Prescott was vintage. His ability to move the ball with his legs made the secondary shaky against the Cowboys receivers - especially Cole Beasley - and that opened up the playbook.

Ezekiel Elliott couldn’t be stopped and just about every receiver got in on the action. Even rookie receiver Michael Gallup got in and showed some of what Cowboy fans had been waiting for.

Hopefully, that game showed just how dangerous the Cowboys can be when they are unpredictable and let their quarterback be himself. If they game planned for today the same as they did against the Jaguars, the rest of the season will be much more winnable.



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Cowboys en Español: ¿Dónde Tiene Que Mejorar Dallas?

Mauricio Rodriguez

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The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly for Cowboys Against Jaguars

El mejor juego de los Dallas Cowboys en 2018 vino la semana pasada, cuando recibieron a los Jacksonville Jaguars y los vencieron 40-7. Un resultado que tomó a todos por sorpresa demostró la mejor cara en el año de este equipo que apenas tiene un récord de 3-3.

Por más dominantes que se vieron en el emparrillado el domingo pasado, esa actuación no termina de reflejar lo que realmente son los Cowboys. Son un equipo con potencial en la ofensiva y con una defensiva bastante fuerte, pero ¿pueden ganar constantemente como lo hicieron contra Jaguars?

De entrada, la respuesta a esta pregunta parece ser no. Aún en esa victoria, se vieron problemas evidentes en la ofensiva. Para empezar, la falta de ejecución en la segunda mitad en series ofensivas que incluso llegaron a iniciar en territorio enemigo. De gol de campo en gol de campo se juntan puntos, sin duda, pero en partidos cerrados eso termina costando victorias. Hace falta que Dak Prescott y compañía puedan mover el balón una vez en rango de gol de campo y convertir esas oportunidades a touchdowns.

Otra preocupación que no podemos subestimar es que el juego aéreo sigue sin funcionar apropiadamente. Cole Beasley dominó con nueve atrapadas para 101 yardas y dos touchdowns, pero el resto de los receptores se fueron sin  más de una recepción por cabeza. El único jugador que logró más de una fue el TE Geoff Swaim, quien se llevo dos en todo el juego.

Si bien Beasley tuvo uno de los mejores juegos en su carrera, más receptores tienen que involucrarse para llevar la ofensiva al siguiente nivel. La buena noticia es que en esta ocasión se enfrentaron contra una de las mejores secundarias en la NFL. Los números son malos, pero tienen la oportunidad de demostrar mucho más contra otras defensivas.

Los Dallas Cowboys tienen que repartir más la bola y seguir buscando maneras creativas de utilizar a su RB Ezekiel Elliott. Pases pantallas en tercera y largo no es ser creativo. Lo vemos funcionar dos o tres veces al año pero mandan esta jugada semanalmente. En cuanto a Dak Prescott, hay mucho donde mejorar. Deberíamos estar viendo pases más arriesgados, al centro del campo y mucho mejor posicionados.

Sean's Scout: Measuring Randy Gregory's Potential Impact on Cowboys Defense

Para la defensiva, las cosas se ven muy bien. Puede que veamos la mejor versión de esta unidad esta semana, cuando viajen a Washington. Maliek Collins, Sean Lee, David Irving, y Randy Gregory estarán jugando mucho más sanos y preparados. Este es un frente defensivo lleno de talento que intimidará constantemente a Alex Smith este domingo.

A pesar de que los Redskins no tienen una ofensiva muy explosiva, el área de oportunidad principal para la defensiva de Cowboys está en la profundidad defensiva. Tanto Jeff Heath como Xavier Woods han hecho un trabajo decente, pero tienen sus momentos en los que no logran asegurar una tackleada y permiten jugadas largas.

Hace unos meses no esperábamos que fuera la defensiva y no la ofensiva la que cargaría a este equipo a muchas victorias, pero ese ha sido el caso en las tres victorias de esta temporada. Y en las tres derrotas, la defensiva fue la que mantuvo a los Cowboys en el juego.

Sin duda alguna, lo que tiene que mejorar es la ofensiva. Los receptores tienen que desmarcarse, Prescott debe ser más preciso y tener una mejor conciencia en la bolsa de protección.

Pero sobre todo, es la inconsistencia del equipo. Esto se comienza a sentir como la temporada del año pasado, cuando los Cowboys se fueron 9-7 y nunca terminaron de establecerse como contendientes a los playoffs. Aún en una NFC East donde todos los equipos tienen récords similares y débiles, no pueden continuar perdiendo una semana y  ganando a la otra.

Ganarle a los Redskins sería la primera victoria de Dallas jugando de visita. También sería la primera vez en el año en la que tendrían victorias consecutivas. Por esto y muchas otras razones, incluyendo el potencial liderato de la división, este juego es de suma importancia.

Si ganan, podría ser el momento en el que los Cowboys terminen de darle la vuelta a la página y si pierden, podría ser un indicador de que esta temporada será igual que la del 2017.

Tell me what you think about "Cowboys en Español: ¿Dónde Tiene Que Mejorar Dallas?" 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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Time to get FB Jamize Olawale More Involved Offensively?

Brian Martin

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Time to get FB Jamize Olawale More Involved Offensively?

The Dallas Cowboys are coming off arguably their best and most complete offensive performance of the season after playing the Jacksonville Jaguars last week, but there is still quite a bit of improvement that can be made. The need to get more playmakers involved is apparent, which is why I think it's time to utilize Fullback Jamize Olawale's unique skill set.

I know many of you will argue that getting Allen Hurns and Michael Gallup going is a higher priority, and you wouldn't be wrong, but Jamize Olawale's playmaking ability could be a huge asset for Quarterback Dak Prescott and the offense. I know it sounds a little strange, but hang in there with me for little bit.

As things stand right now, Olawale has only played 38 offensive snaps (10%) in 2018. That's the exact amount of offensive plays Wide Receiver Terrance Williams has played this year and he's missed the majority of the season. It's not exactly the kind of production I was expecting when the Cowboys decided to bring him aboard via trade with the Oakland Raiders earlier this offseason.

I don't know about you, but I was expecting Olawale to be more involved in the offensive game plan. He is an excellent receiver out of the backfield and isn't too shabby as a runner either. But, we haven't seen him utilized in either fashion this season and I think that's an injustice that needs to be corrected.

Now, I fully understand there are other offensive weapons ahead of him in the pecking order who need to see more targets, but I also really think he can make a difference maker, especially in the passing game. That is where his strengths lie, not as a lead blocking fullback.

Jamize Olawale

Dallas Cowboys FB Jamize Olawale

Olawale was a bit of a Swiss Army knife during his time with the Oakland Raiders. He played a little running back, fullback, tight end, and even a little slot receiver. I really thought the Cowboys would take advantage of his versatility in the passing game, but as of yet they have failed to do so.

I'd like to see the Dallas Cowboys and Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan utilize Jamize Olawale's unique playmaking ability a little bit more on offense. I think they should try to utilize him like the San Francisco 49ers use their fullback, Kyle Juszczyk. He's much more involved and has played a total of 263 offensive snaps (63.68%) this year.

Juszczyk is a better lead blocking FB then Olawale, but that's not where he makes the most difference in the 49ers offense. He does it as a receiver and has already caught 17 passes for 227 yards and one touchdown. That's some pretty solid production from a position that is being phased out in the NFL.

Now, just imagine the Cowboys offense getting similar production from Olawale and how that would help open up things for everybody else. It's not out of the realm of possibility because the 49ers offense and the Cowboys isn't all that dissimilar.

Unfortunately, I think Jamize Olawale is pretty much an afterthought in the Cowboys offense right now. It's truly unfortunate because I think he can be a difference maker if given the opportunity. And with a division foe like the Washington Redskins next on the schedule, what better time to unleash a new and unseen element of the offense?

Do you think Jamize Olawale needs to be more involved offensively?



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