In 36 seconds of game time on Sunday, Dallas Cowboys fans went through a roller coaster of emotions.
It started with Tony Romo’s touchdown pass to Dez Bryant that put Dallas a two-point conversion away from tying the game. Bryant dropped the conversion pass attempt, leaving the Cowboys in dire straits.
Then just when the game seemed to be over, the Cowboys were given new life by recovering the onside kick. Their chances for a win looked even more promising after Baltimore’s defensive pass interference penalty gave Dallas a first-and-10 from the Ravens' 34.
But that advantage soon disappeared as Romo completed a 1-yard pass to Bryant with 26 seconds remaining. Finally, after some indecision by the players and coaches, Dallas called its last timeout with six seconds remaining. This left kicker Dan Bailey with a 51-yard field goal attempt to win the game. He missed and the Cowboys are now in the cellar of the NFC East.
We can quantify the gamut of emotions final few minutes of this game had using the concept of win probability.
ESPN’s win probability tool – which looks at 10-plus seasons of historical data to find the chance of winning at any game situation – crystalizes the rising-and-quickly-falling hopes Dallas fans had to endure between recovering the onside kick and missing the game-winning field goal.
At its peak following the pass interference call, the Cowboys were actually better than 50-50 favorites to win the game. Then two plays later they had lost.
We can also use win probability to quantify just how much the hesitancy to call the timeout cost the Cowboys. Dallas’ chance of winning if they had called timeout with 21 seconds left (when the whistle blew) would have been 46 percent. However, by letting the clock drop down to six seconds, their win probability fell to 40 percent.
That doesn’t appear to be a significant fall, but those numbers are only NFL averages. Looking at Dallas’ specific situation makes the indecisiveness look even more costly.
Entering that kick Bailey was just 4-for-7 on field goals of 49-53 yards in his NFL career. This includes a miss on a potential game-winner from 49 yards last year in Arizona after a similar clock mismanagement mishap.
If the Cowboys had called timeout with 21 seconds left and gotten 5-10 additional yards before the attempt, Bailey’s chances would have significantly improved.
He is 8-for-8 in his career on attempts of 40-45 yards, including two such kicks earlier in Sunday’s game. Obviously this is not a guarantee, but at worst it would have given Dallas a better chance to win and a less sour taste in their mouths leaving Baltimore.