Dallas Cowboys: Can the XFL lead the way in 4th down reform?

If the XFL teaches the Dallas Cowboys and the rest of the NFL that ‘going for it’ isn’t risky behavior, but rather smart behavior, the start-up league’s existence will be all worth it.

The Dallas Cowboys and the rest of the NFL would be wise to pay attention to what the XFL is promoting because following suit could make all the difference in separating the winners from the losers.

The NFL is notoriously the caveman of professional sports. While baseball embraced sabermetrics over a decade ago, and basketball has now almost fully conformed to what the numbers say about 3-point shooting, the professional football world (especially the Dallas Cowboys) is dragging their feet in the acceptance of facts and odds based decision-making.

The XFL just kicked off this past week and with their launch they provided teams valuable information that may change the way they think regarding kicking, punting, and extra points.

Said the XFL website:

“In an attempt to better inform the XFL team and league personnel and partners on fourth-down decision-making, Optimum Scouting built a decision-making model based on expected points added (EPA) over the past decade.”

While EPA and fourth-down decision-making models are nothing new, the Dallas Cowboys and the rest of the NFL have taken a long time embracing it. Not even remotely.

The simple odds suggest teams should be ‘going for it’ far more often than they actually are. Since the standard accepted thought is you have three downs to convert and only in extreme late-game circumstances do you “gamble” and go for it, coaches are universally hesitant to do something that could possibly put blame on their decision making.

So they take the conservative route and punt…or kick. They are basically content sitting with a hard 11 and hoping, against odds, the dealer will bust. This strategy is both spineless and stupid.

Now, obviously details matter. These models are based on averages and if you have a below-average offense and you’re playing an above average defense, it should carry added weight. But in non-extreme matters, this should be the rubric by which they follow.

Take a gander. It’s crazy how far off the NFL is on this. It may seem crazy to go for it inside your own 10-yard line but it’s really not since regardless of down, the EPA already favors the defense in most cases (meaning the team currently on defense is more likely to score than the team on offense). This says even if you play it safe/stupid and punt, you’re probably going to give up points. You might as well play to win if the odds are in your favor.

Now, nobody is going to dive into this pool 100%, but NFL teams are already dipping their toes in it. Baltimore and Kansas City are two notable teams who employ and follow their analytics departments on this. It’s safe to say if KC didn’t go for it in the Super Bowl, they wouldn’t have won. It’s also safe to say if San Francisco would have, they might have had a chance.

The Dallas Cowboys fully embrace analytics in their draft scouting but have been hesitant to even look at it in game-time decision-making. No wonder that’s an area they notoriously struggle.