Connect with us

Star Blog

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

Kevin Brady

Published

on

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!



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.

Advertisement
Comments

Star Blog

Jaylon Smith’s “Clear Eye View” Coming Into Focus

Matthew Lenix

Published

on

Jaylon Smith's "Clear Eye View" Coming Into Focus

Jaylon Smith's career nearly ended before he even stepped foot on an NFL field.

The 2016 Fiesta Bowl featured two top-shelf college programs, Notre Dame and Ohio State. You would think the headlines of such a contest would be of excellence on the gridiron but in the first quarter that would all change. Smith would suffer a gruesome knee injury, tearing both his ACL and MCL. The timing couldn't have been worse considering the NFL Draft was just three months away, and the Irish star was looked at as a potential top 10 pick. Many thought his stock would plummet tremendously, but the Dallas Cowboys had a different view in mind so to speak.

On January 7th Smith would have successful surgery to repair both ligaments in his knee. Just four days later, he announced he would forego his senior year and enter the NFL Draft, and the long road to recovery began.

Surprisingly, just six weeks post surgery, Smith was already squatting 500 pounds, truly an amazing accomplishment considering his physical status. By late April, he was already doing field work as he worked his body back into peak condition. When you take into account the seriousness of his injury just three months prior, it was mind-blowing to see him dropping into coverage and swatting a tackling dummy just before the NFL Draft.

Noticeably, he was wearing an Ankle-Foot Orthosis (AFO) device. The nerve damage in his knee caused a condition called drop foot. The brace provided stabilization to the ankle, foot, and knee for Smith and his workout videos began to generate buzz across the NFL landscape.

After taking All-Pro Running Back Ezekiel Elliott with the 4th overall pick, the Cowboys took what many deemed an unnecessary gamble with the 34th pick in round two. Even with the doubts flowing rapidly, they decided Smith was worth the risk and made him a Dallas Cowboy. Now that his pro football home had been determined it was time to get to work.

It would be a long shot for Smith to see the field as a rookie, and he wouldn't risk further damage rushing back too quickly. Instead, he spent the season rehabbing and getting acclimated to the Cowboys defensive philosophy, at least as much as he could without actually being on the field of battle. He could be seen on the sidelines cheering his football brothers on weekly as they went 13-3 and won the NFC East, but as we all know, players want to play, and there's no doubt that Smith was itching to make his presence known.

After a year and a half of rehab, and high expectations just from his workout videos alone, Jaylon Smith made his long-awaited NFL debut week one of 2017 against the Giants. It was clear he wasn't quite back to the player that was so highly praised coming out of college, but you could see the flashes. He finished with 81 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, 2 passes defended and 1 sack. More than solid for your first year on the field after ACL and MCL tears.

For years, the Cowboys defense was looked at as the teams weakest unit, but in 2018 that all changed, in large part because of the play of Smith. He would catapult his name into the conversation of the elite linebackers in all of football with his performance in year two. 121 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries, 4 passes defended and 4 sacks. This would silence any and all doubters who questioned rather he would ever reach his ceiling, and it also got him named PFF's (Pro Football Focus) Breakout Player of the Year. Also, following the lead of their new defensive star, the Cowboys finished 5th against the run, 7th in fewest points allowed, 7th in total defense and a solid 13th against the pass. I guess it's safe to say if you follow the lead of Jaylon Smith good things will come.

The biggest takeaway from last season in regards to Jaylon Smith was just how unlimited he looked movement wise. No hesitation, no timid motions at all when you watch his film. He shot through gaps like a Cheetah hunting an Antelope, to use a National Geographic analogy. We are seeing exactly why the Cowboys turned in his draft card in 2016, and they are reaping the benefits tremendously.

Now, as the 2019 season approaches look for an All-Pro level season from Smith. He's improved every year he's been on the field and there's no sign of that stopping in the near future. Plus, he has two things most middle linebackers don't have, an All-Pro on each side of him with teammates Leighton Vander Esch and Sean Lee, making life that much easier for him. Limitations and doubts have been cast aside and now look for Jaylon Smith to raise his game to another level. The "Clear Eye View" is in full swing.



Continue Reading

Star Blog

Prescott, Elliott, and Cooper Resembling Nineties Triplets

Matthew Lenix

Published

on

Prescott, Elliott and Cooper Resem

They say history repeats itself, and we could be looking at a rerun in Dallas.

The Cowboys of the nineties were lead by three future Hall of Famers Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin on offense. An accurate passer, elite level runner and a clutch receiver. Now the modern-day version is lead by three top-shelf players in their own right. Dak Prescott has won more games than any quarterback since 2016 not named Tom Brady. Ezekiel Elliott has two rushing crowns in his first three years. And Amari Cooper is a multiple time pro bowler and one of the best receivers in the game. The similarities, however, don't end there.

First, let's look at the quarterbacks, Aikman and Prescott.

In 1989, the Cowboys were looking to solidify the quarterback position and snatching up the former Oklahoma Sooner and UCLA Bruin was a no brainer. Aikman went number one in the NFL Draft because of his prototypical size and accurate arm. However, his career didn't get off to a Canton, Ohio type start. He threw just nine touchdowns while simultaneously doubling that number in interceptions. The team would lose all eleven of Aikman's starts and finished with the leagues worst record at 1-15.

When 1991 rolled around things started to change when Aikman lead the Cowboys to a 6-4 record but unfortunately got hurt against the eventual Super Bowl Champion Washington Redskins. Backup Quarterback Steve Beuerlein would lead the Cowboys to a 5-0 record to finish the season and a road playoff win in Chicago. The next week in Detroit the Cowboys were down 17-6 at halftime and Aikman was brought in to maybe provide a spark but it was unsuccessful. After the 38-6 beatdown and uncertainty, if he had the trust of coach Jimmy Johnson, Aikman thought about demanding a trade. But soon after he would get his vote of confidence and the keys to the franchise.

In 1992 Aikman was entering year four and took full advantage of this new belief in him. He had career highs in completions (302), yards (3,445), and touchdowns (23). The Cowboys finished a 13-3 and were the number two seed in the NFC Playoffs. The former first-round pick would have his finest hour in Super Bowl XXVII. Going 22-30 for 273 yards and four touchdowns. A performance that landed him a well deserved Super Bowl MVP.

Dak Prescott, however, wasn't as celebrated as Aikman coming out of college in 2016. He would be drafted in the fourth round as the potential heir the Tony Romo's throne. The third string rookie got a few breaks heading into his inaugural season. When Kellen Moore and Tony Romo both suffered injuries, Prescott was thrust into the starting lineup. After losing his first start against the Giants, he would run off 11 straight wins on his way to leading the Cowboys to a 13-3 record and the top seed in the NFC.

He would struggle in 2017, especially with Ezekiel Elliott missing six games. The Cowboys went 9-7 and missed the playoffs. Some wondered if Prescott was really as good as his rookie season indicated or did he have to have the ideal situation in order to perform. But in 2018 however, not only did Prescott improve, but he would get his first playoff win against the Seahawks. Now, similar to Aikman nearly three decades earlier, Prescott is entering year four in 2019 and currently in negotiations for a major contract extension. Will his fourth campaign end in Super Bowl glory as well?

Next, we look at the running backs, Smith and Elliott.

In 1990 Emmitt Smith and his now infamous polka-dot vest came to Dallas to solidify the running game. He would have a solid rookie season with 937 yards and the Cowboys improved their win total by six games. In 1991 Smith ran for 1,563 yards and won his first of four rushing titles, and the Cowboys went 11-5 and made the playoffs.

When his third season rolled around in 1992 the former Florida Gator would firmly establish himself as the NFL's top ball carrier. Winning his second consecutive rushing crown with a then-franchise record 1,713 yards. He would cap off the season with 108 yards in Super Bowl XXVII as the Cowboys won the franchises third title.

Ezekiel Elliott was a lock as a top 5 pick heading into the 2016 NFL Draft. Names like Joey Bosa and Jalen Ramsey would be linked heavily to the Cowboys. However, they decided to go in another direction, and with the fourth pick, they got their bell cow in the backfield taking Elliott out of Ohio State. He wasted no time setting his mark on the NFL by leading the league in rushing with 1,631 yards in only 15 games.

2017 would have plenty of headaches for Elliott as he dealt with the possibility of a six-game suspension for domestic violence allegations. After a long battle with the league, he would ultimately accept his punishment but still managed to rack up 983 yards in ten games. With no off the field distractions weighing him down, he bounced back with another All-Pro season in 2018 and added his second rushing title to his resume with 1,434 yards. Now, Elliott enters year four in 2019, just a year further along than Emmitt in 1992. Is there another rushing title and a Super Bowl victory on the horizon?

Lastly, let's look at the wide receivers, Irvin and Cooper.

Michael Irvin was a part of Tom Landry's final draft class in 1988. In 1989, the future Hall of Famer torn his ACL which would cause him to miss the remainder of the season and the first four games of 1990. After extensive rehab, he would finally put it all together in 1991. He had his second-best season in both receptions (93) and yards (1,523) and started a string of five consecutive Pro Bowl selections and his only first-team All-Pro honor.

Irvin would follow that brilliant season with another in 1992. With 78 receptions for 1,396 yards, he had firmly established himself as one of the leagues best at his position in his fifth season. But on the biggest stage, he would have his most legendary performance. He scored consecutive touchdowns in the second quarter that essentially blew the game wide open, and the Cowboys won 52-17 in Super Bowl XXVII.

Amari Cooper came into the NFL with big expectations coming out of Alabama in 2015, and he wasted no time living up to them. In his first two seasons, he would rack up over 1,000 yards in each and be selected to the Pro Bowl. After a slightly down year in 2017, Cooper's days in Oakland were numbered when the team brought in Jon Gruden to be the head coach in 2018. He cleaned house with Raiders which included trading Cooper to the Cowboys for a first round pick, and life changed dramatically in Dallas.

His immediate chemistry with Dak Prescott couldn't be denied as the offense would open up immensely now that it had a true number one receiver. Cooper would reach 1,000 yards for the third time and receive a third Pro Bowl selection, as the Cowboys would make the playoffs after a year absence. Now like Irvin in 1992, year five is approaching for Amari Cooper. Can his impact be enough to help the Cowboys win the Super Bowl in 2019? Time will tell.

Prescott, Elliott, and Cooper are at the same points in their careers as Aikman, Smith, and Irvin were in 1992 when they started their run of three Super Bowls in four years and their paths to Canton. Is this the start of another Cowboys dynasty? Are we witnessing the new Triplets? Now, of course, the jury is still out if this present day version can carry that title, but I'm not saying that they can't, or that they won't.



Continue Reading

Star Blog

Why DT Maliek Collins May Be Poised For Monster Season

Kevin Brady

Published

on

Sean's Scout: Maliek Collins Making Strides In DT Transition

Dallas' 2016 draft class is one of the best in team history. To be honest, it might be considered one of the better classes in NFL history if they can put together more sustained postseason success in the near future.

Now that the members of that 2016 class are entering their fourth season, the time to pay them is quickly approaching. Stephen Jones has talked repeatedly about giving quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott their deserved extensions, and fourth year linebacker Jaylon Smith is also on his short list to extend.

The third round selection of that same draft, Maliek Collins, has not heard his name mentioned when extensions are discussed, though. Instead, the media has mostly focused on the depth surrounding Collins at defensive tackle, indicating that he will likely be off to a new team come 2020.

It's simple cap-math after all, right? The Cowboys have a ton of guys to pay these next two offseasons, and feel comfortable acquiring players at Collins' position both late in drafts and on bargain deals during free agency. Rod Marinelli has made it work with misfits before, and likely plans to do so again in the future.

This doesn't mean Maliek Collins won't play like he's playing for a pay-day, though.

Collins is finally getting through an offseason fully healthy (knock on wood) and is geared up to go to training camp this Summer. When healthy, Collins has been a force from the 3-technique, especially as an internal pass rusher. Collins brings an explosiveness off the ball that few Cowboys on the interior can match. When at his best, he's clearly a starting-level defensive tackle for this team.

Health has been far from guaranteed with Maliek Collins, however, and the Cowboys have adjusted their defensive tackle depth accordingly this offseason. Former Texans tackle Christian Covington joined the team through free agency, as did former Detroit Lion Kerry Hyder.

Like Tyrone Crawford, Hyder brings end/tackle versatility, making him somewhat of a competitor to Maliek Collins despite mostly looking to play left defensive end. Hyder could see time at 3-technique in pass rushing situations, especially, which would directly bite into Collins' playing time.

Then, of course, the Cowboys spent their first pick of the 2019 NFL Draft on defensive tackle Trysten Hill, further muddying up the defensive line room.

Earning consistent playing time will not be a cake-walk for Maliek Collins as he enters his final season under contract with the Cowboys. But having to compete for that time, and compete for his next contract whether it be in Dallas or not, could lead Maliek Collins to a breakout 2019 season.

He certainly wouldn't be the first player to ball out during his contract year.



Continue Reading



Enjoy 40% commissions on officially licensed products as a FanPrint affiliate. You can even make your own, fully licensed Cowboys and player designs! Get started here

Trending