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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.

Star Blog

Will DeMarcus Lawrence Be Franchise Tagged Again in 2019?

Mauricio Rodriguez

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DeMarcus Lawrence, Franchise Tags and Realities for Dallas Cowboys
Matthew Emmons / USA TODAY Sports

The deadline for extending players under the franchise tag has come and gone last Monday, in a day in which none of the remaining tagged players reached an agreement with their respective teams. That includes Dallas Cowboy Defensive End DeMarcus Lawrence, who's set to earn $17M in 2018.

The front office and the 26-year old defensive end failed to agree to a new contract before the season's start, but we saw that coming. After all, there was never a point in which we had the classic "X player and his team are close to a new deal" headline.

All of this makes the future of the Cowboys' promising "War Daddy" very uncertain. What lies a head of the player that put on an impressive show in 2018?

Since 2017 was Lawrence's breakout year, racking up 14.5 sacks trough the season, we have leaned towards the narrative of last season being his only good one. His performance last season was impressive and clearly his best one yet, but we tend to overlook 2015.

In his sophomore season, the only other year in which he has played 16 games, he finished the campaign with eight sacks and 35 tackles (55 combined). Really, the idea of 2017 being his only good year is not as accurate as we might think.

That being said, I think it's more likely that we see another great year from him this upcoming season than seeing a disappointing one. This, of course, will end up being the main thing that determines his future in Dallas.

Are Dallas Cowboys Building A Championship Defense? 1

Dallas Cowboys DE DeMarcus Lawrence

The Dallas Cowboys front office really took a risk by tagging Lawrence this offseason. #90 was reportedly asking for an average of $17M per year in his long-term contract, which is Olivier Vernon kind of money.

So what if he puts a similar season or an even better one? Lawrence and his agent could end up asking for even more money. Perhaps in the 18 or 20 million dollars per year range. If that ends up being the case, the team will find itself in a tough position when trying to reach an agreement with its promising pass rusher.

Which leads us to the possibility of seeing the Cowboys franchise tagging Lawrence for the second consecutive season. Dallas will already be negotiating a contract extension with QB Dak Prescott, and things will get complicated. Even more if they decide to pursue a big-time free agent in March, such as Earl Thomas.

It would make sense, from a financial perspective, to hand the tag twice in consecutive years to D-Law. However, it shouldn't be the priority. If he plays like he did in 2017, the front office will be more than wise to extend him for good.

According to OverTheCap.com, the Cowboys will have approximately $50.6M. Seemingly, the team's cap woes will be over soon.

Fortunately, Lawrence didn't become a headache by threatening to holdout for offseason programs and even training camp. However, don't expect that to happen if he finds himself under the tag next year.

Careers in the NFL are short, so DeMarcus will surely want to get paid. If he keeps it up, he'll deserve it. As much as he deserves it, though, football is a cold business. If the Jones need to tag him, they will.

Do you think the Cowboys will franchise tag Lawrence in 2019?

Tell me what you think about "Will DeMarcus Lawrence Be Franchise Tagged Again in 2019?" 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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Without Looming Suspension, RB Ezekiel Elliott Should Shine In 2018

Kevin Brady

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Cowboys en Español: 3

NFL Films typically does a good job of exposing some truths around NFL teams. Whether through "Hard Knocks" or Amazon's new "All or Nothing" series, these documentaries do an excellent job of giving fans an inside look of their favorite teams.

If anything was revealed through the Cowboys' All or Nothing series on their 2017 season, it's that Ezekiel Elliott's suspension weighed heavy on his mind all year.

The Pro Bowl running back did not look, act, or play like himself while awaiting decision on his incoming suspension. And, once it was finally announced he would serve the six games, the entire team collapsed in Atlanta.

Despite the clear and detrimental effects Elliott's suspension had on the Cowboys' season, Zeke still put up more-than-respectable numbers; rushing for almost 1,000 yards and averaging a league leading 98.3 yards per game.

Now, Ezekiel Elliott enters a season with no doubts about his own availability. Scott Linehan gets to coach an offense that knows they will have their best player for the entire season barring major injury. And, Jason Garrett can lead his team without addressing questions about Elliott's future day in and day out.What Workload is Ezekiel Elliott Prepared for in 2018? 1

Of course, these effects aren't quantifiable. We can't sit here and say that without the pressure of court appearances and suspensions that Elliott will be worth "X" amount of more yards and "Y" more touchdowns.

But I do believe we can say, without question, that playing with a clear mind and without a looming suspension will breed the type of production we saw from Zeke his rookie year.

We can say that Elliott has had a weight lifted off his shoulders, and could be looking for revenge on a league he feels did him wrong.

And, for the Cowboys sake, I hope this is true. Because they are going to need Ezekiel Elliott to be even better than he ever has been if they hope to make a run at the Super Bowl in 2018.



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Star Blog

Cowboys en Español: El Regreso de Randy Gregory

Mauricio Rodriguez

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Randy Gregory, Eagles
Eric Hartline / USA TODAY Sports

A sólo días de que los Dallas Cowboys aterricen en Oxnard, California para dar inicio a su training camp como todos los años, el equipo recibió excelentes noticias respecto a la selección de segunda ronda del 2015: Randy Gregory. Después de pasar todo el 2017 suspendido, el ala defensiva ha sido oficialmente reintegrado por la NFL.

Gregory, quien tuvo muchos problemas debido al uso de marihuana, ha pasado los últimos meses rehabilitándose para poder volver a vestir la estrella y volver al emparrillado. Los Cowboys, quienes siempre apoyaron a su joven jugador, sin duda estarán felices de verlo de vuelta en el equipo por motivos más allá que el football americano.

Sin duda alguna, antes de estar emocionados y felices por verlo en el campo intimidando a quarterbacks rivales, deberíamos estar alegres por el logro personal de Randy como un ser humano. Realmente hizo un esfuerzo consciente en un lugar en el que muchos se hubieran rendido y dejado sus sueños de ser parte de la NFL. Pero no lo hizo, y ahora, todos sus esfuerzos han valido la pena.

El siguiente paso en su lista por-hacer, es volver al campo y poco a poco, ganarse su puesto en el equipo y después, la titularidad. La última vez que vimos a Gregory en el campo, fue contra Philadelphia, en el final de temporada del 2016.

En este juego, Gregory mostró muchos destellos de lo que sería capaz de hacer semana tras semana en la liga y porque valió la pena nunca dejarlo ir, lo cual no hubiera tenido sentido hacer, dado que los Cowboys no les costaba nada (literalmente) mantenerlo en el equipo.

Sean Martin escribió un artículo recientemente en el que analiza este partido a fondo.

El potencial de Gregory es inmenso, suficiente incluso, para aventurarse a decir que se convertirá en el defensive end (ala defensiva) derecho antes de lo esperado. El reto más grande para el jugador de 25 años será regresar a una condición física óptima para la NFL.

Afortunadamente, a diferencia del 2016, Gregory no estará regresando a media temporada. Su llegada toma lugar justo a tiempo para el training camp, dándole tiempo para regresar a la forma en la que tiene que estar.

Una vez ahí, ¿qué tanto le tomará ganarse un rol más importante que el de Tyrone Crawford y Taco Charlton? A pesar de que prácticamente no lo hemos visto jugar en Dallas, sabemos el potencial que tiene para convertirse en un defensivo de suma importancia para los Cowboys.

Un año después de ver la mejor temporada en la carrera de DeMarcus Lawrence, los Cowboys tendrán el potencial de una estrella similar en el lado derecho de su línea defensiva. Gregory tiene una montaña que escalar para cumplir las expectativas de los aficionados, pero no será una sorpresa si lo logra.

Vaya, no olvidemos que si no fuera por sus problemas fuera del campo, hubiera sido seleccionado en el Top 10 del Draft del 2015. Tiene el potencial de conseguir diez sacks por temporada.

Con un poco de suerte, no nos equivocaremos en tenerle fe al jugador que ha tenido un gran viaje para llegar a este punto. El punto de ponerse el casco e ir a trabajar con su equipo.

Incluso si sólo llega a ser un jugador de rotación, sin duda será importante para el éxito del equipo. Entre DeMarcus Lawrence, David Irving, Randy Gregory y el resto del talento que los Cowboys tienen en la línea defensiva, el equipo podría tener un frente de muy buena calidad.

Tell me what you think about "Cowboys en Español: El Regreso de Randy Gregory" 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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