Why the Cowboys may miss Parcells in '07   

Updated: February 14, 2007, 1:30 PM ET

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The 2006 ZEUS Critical Call Index (CCI) is an assessment of each NFL team's performance in making optimal decisions on fourth downs, PATs and kickoffs. We refer to these types of play-calling decisions as "critical" because they often have a great effect on the outcome of a game.

Every critical decision for the 2006 regular season was evaluated by ZEUS™ (http://zeusfootball.com) for its impact on the team's expected winning chances in that particular game. The errors were then summed for the entire 16-game season and the resulting total is the cumulative cost in seasonal win expectation in units of games per season. The lower the number, the better the team was at making critical calls.

Rank Team Errors
1. Dallas Cowboys 0.41
2. Chicago Bears 0.49
3. Pittsburgh Steelers 0.50
4. New York Giants 0.57
5. Baltimore Ravens 0.59
6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 0.60
7. Oakland Raiders 0.60
8. San Diego Chargers 0.62
9. Cincinnati Bengals 0.65
10. Green Bay Packers 0.67
11. New England Patriots 0.67
12. Carolina Panthers 0.69
13. Seattle Seahawks 0.70
14. Denver Broncos 0.70
15. New York Jets 0.72
16. Philadelphia Eagles 0.74
17. Arizona Cardinals 0.74
18. Atlanta Falcons 0.78
19. Kansas City Chiefs 0.79
20. Tennessee Titans 0.93
21. New Orleans Saints 0.97
22. Miami Dolphins 0.98
23. Houston Texans 0.99
24. Jacksonville Jaguars 0.99
25. Indianapolis Colts 1.02
26. St. Louis Rams 1.04
27. Detroit Lions 1.05
28. Buffalo Bills 1.07
29. Minnesota Vikings 1.09
30. Cleveland Browns 1.16
31. Washington Redskins 1.28
32. San Francisco 49ers 1.48


Here is an example of how ZEUS works.

Suppose a team is facing fourth-and-1 at midfield. The correct call between punting and running is the play that will provide the higher expectation of winning the game on average. ZEUS plays the game to completion (hundreds of thousands of times) from that point forward in a virtual environment and tabulates the statistical results. Score, time on the clock, ball location, down, yards to go, and strengths and weaknesses of the opposing teams are all accurately considered. If ZEUS suggests the run is 2 percent GWC ("Game Winning Chance" expectation) better than the punt, this means that under identical conditions the running play, on average, will net two more victories than the punt in every 100 games played. A 100 percent GWC is equivalent to one full game.

The optimum call does not provide a guaranteed result -- no decision in football ever does. It simply identifies the best path to victory. Over the course of a long season critical call errors add up. The ZEUS CCI reveals just how much these preventable errors accumulate, and how much they can ultimately cost an NFL team.

Let's take a look at a sampling of bad play call decisions from the 2006 season. This table details six double-digit errors.

Week Game Poss. Score Qtr Time Line of
Down YTG Actual call ZEUS call Error (GWC)
1 NO@CLE NO lead 16-14 4 5:45 opp 2 4 2 FG pass/run -11.2%
3 JAC@IND JAC trail 7-14 3 0:54 opp 31 4 1 FG run -10.9%
11 BUF@HOU BUF trail 17-21 4 2:25 own 44 4 4 punt pass -12.0%
12 SF@STL SF lead 14-13 4 4:00 opp 7 4 1 FG run -11.1%
13 IND@TEN IND trail 14-17 4 2:41 opp 2 4 2 FG pass -12.9%
15 WAS@NO WAS lead 13-10 4 4:19 opp 4 4 3 FG run/pass -11.1%


There are some common themes among these erroneous play call choices. All but one situation occurred late in the game. Most were deep in the opponents' territory. All were fourth-and-short. In every case the conservative kick was the actual decision, whereas going for the first down (or touchdown) was ZEUS' clear choice. The score in all situations was relatively close; the team making the decision was leading in half the situations, and trailing in the other half.

Finally, let's take a look at a couple correct decisions by the year's top playcallers -- the Dallas Cowboys.

Week Game Poss. Score Qtr Time Line of
Down YTG Actual call ZEUS call Error (GWC)
11 IND@DAL DAL trail 7-14 4 15:00 opp 19 4 1 run run 0.0%
16 PHI@DAL DAL trail 0-7 1 0:33 opp 24 4 2 pass run/pass 0.0%


Again we have some common themes: close game, in the opponents' territory, fourth-and-short. It would be interesting to query NFL coaches on what they would do here but I think it is safe to say that most would take the "sure" field goal. Bill Parcells shunned the easy route and made the correct decision in both cases: go for the first down. Although the CCI only tabulates incorrect decisions (and thus the table shows 0 percent error here), it's worth noting that the field goal in the second situation would have been a 2.5 percent error while in the first game, a field goal would have been a very costly 8.3 percent error. From these two examples we see why Dallas earned the No. 1 ranking in the 2006 ZEUS Critical Call Index.

Chuck Bower is a Senior Scientist in Experimental Particle Astrophysics at Indiana University. Frank Frigo is a former backgammon world champion. Bo Durickovic is the Chief Strategy Officer for the North American division of a multibillion dollar government services company. You can e-mail them at info@pigskinrevolution.com.


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