DALLAS - So, here’s the concept: every week, this space will serve to examine the play in the previous Sunday’s Cowboys game that had the biggest effect on the game’s Win Probability.
What is Win Probability, you ask? Well I’m glad you did, and if you didn’t then feel free to skip ahead (but only one paragraph, now). Win Probability (stylized hereafter as WP%) is explained pretty well here, and the ESPN model is the one we’ll be using.
Now, off top of your head, you may notice a key flaw here, that being that NFL games (and Jason Garrett-coached Dallas Football Cowboy games in particular) tend to be close, and lots of them come down to last-second field goals, and breaking down a field goal is probably on par with day surgery on a finger or a tooth extraction in terms of interest.
For that, let me say we’ll take a minor note of creative liberty with the concept, and we’re not strictly married to the idea of featuring only the play with the biggest WP% swing.
That said, on with the show.
The Play: 00:12 left in the 4th Quarter, Dallas down 20-19, 3rd and 10, DAL 46
Ok, I admit, this is pretty basic stuff. If you left the game with any kind of taste in your mouth (I’m kind of numb to Dallas football, myself!), this play had to be that which did it for you.
See, at the start of this play, WP% suggested the Cowboys were not in bad shape. In fact, at 73.5% likely to see a NYG win, WP% suggested that the Cowboys weren’t further away from a coin flip as likelihood of a certain defeat.
And it makes sense if you think about it. The game came down to a few yards separating Dallas from possible (if not likely) field goal range for the team’s super sentient robotic field goal kicking monster machine, Dan Bailey. Could Bailey have hit from 64? I don’t know, and I don’t know for sure what he would say if you asked him, but I think in his mind the only answer is a casual ‘yep.’
The Cowboys lined up in a somewhat odd alignment for a do-or-die two minute play such as this, keeping Jason Witten in (on the near side) with Lance Dunbar beside Dak Prescott in the shotgun. Brice Butler, on the left side, runs a go with Witten crossing beneath him (close enough to get separation from the LB covering him to make it to the far sideline).
Dak never looks his way, however, as the route is mirrored on the right side of the field with Dez running a go and Terrence Williams crossing under him. Dak makes a quick, decisive throw (that’s good!) to Williams, whose cover is sagged off (obviously, New York was playing to allow the short completion and gambling on the leg of Bailey and the arm of Prescott).
With ten seconds left in the game, Williams has the ball just past midfield, with the closet blue jersey more than ten yards away, in no position to keep him from going out of bounds.
There are approximately 7.4 billion people in the world. All but one of them, probably, knew the play was to get any yard given and dance out of bounds with about seven seconds on the clock, enough time to maybe run on more quick out to try to move the ball to the 40. Williams very easily had a route out of bounds at the 45, maybe 43 if he doesn’t mind taking the receipt that comes with it.
Instead, he inexplicably cut inside, taking the clock down to 4 seconds before he was tackled. A rush to the line wasn’t enough to give Dan Bailey a shot at 59 yards. Ballgame.
What are the odds Bailey would have hit from 64, had Williams danced directly out of bounds and the team immediately opts for the kick? There’s no way to know for sure. The league record is 64 yards, so it is humanly possible to do so. 538’s research suggests that the current climate’s success rate for field goals attempted over 50 yards is somewhere around 52% and likely to climb for the foreseeable future.
At any route, the matter is moot, because that 27.5% chance the Cowboys had to win evaporated to zero, as the clock ticked to that very number.
Runner Up: Here we have to note the effect chaos theory has on games, and plays early in the game seem like a back breaker (and they might be!) but that isn’t reflected in WP%. The play, of course, is 1st and Goal, Dallas at NYG 10, 8:01 in the first. Yep, the Cole Beasley Drop (no, not the other Cole Beasley drops, that don’t necessitate a capital D).
The Cowboys were 59.9% likely to win the game at that point; Beasley’s drop at the goal line which led to Dallas being forced to settle for Bailey's first field goal of the day made that... 59.9%. Yeah, the numbers say it didn’t hurt, but had that first drive resulted in a TD instead of a FG, how would those four points have changed the game?
Answer: A lot. But I am not a rocket scientist or a soothsayer, so I can’t tell you by how much.
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