By Matthew Postins

Dallas Cowboys logoIf the Dallas Cowboys are to make the jump from average team to playoff team, there are some things on the field that must change in 2013. In this series, outlines five improvements the Cowboys could make in order to accomplish that goal in 2013.

No. 3: Start games – and the season – better

During the Dallas Cowboys’ season finale against Washington, Cris Collinsworth mentioned something that sounded wrong. Collinsworth said that the Cowboys had held a lead for 23 percent of their games in 2012.

I thought that sounded wrong. So I spent a few minutes doing the math.

Turns out Collinsworth was right. Or his statistician.

The Cowboys held the lead 23.4 percent of the time in 2012, which amounts to 224:56 of game clock. In case you’re interested, there are 960 minutes in a NFL regular season, not counting overtime.

I wasn’t able to find statistics indicating how long each team in the NFL held the lead this season. But it’s hard to imagine a team with a better record than the Cowboys holding the lead for fewer minutes.

In other words, the Cowboys really rode the edge this season en route to 8-8. It breaks down like this:

The Cowboys didn’t hold the lead for more than 32:51 in any game this season (against Tampa Bay);

The Cowboys held the lead for more than 30 minutes in just three games in 2012 (Tampa Bay, the win over the New York Giants and Pittsburgh);

The Cowboys held the lead for 10 minutes or less in eight games this season, including two games in which Dallas never had the lead;

The Cowboys won three games this year when they held the lead for fewer than six minutes.

There has to be an easier way to win a game, right?

This is a Cowboys team that struggled to score points, especially in the first half of this season. So forget the amount of time they held the lead. Look at the amount of points they scored in each quarter.

The breakdown exposes an offense that was painfully slow to reach the end zone. The Cowboys scored just 36 points in the first quarter in 2012. There were nine games in which Dallas didn’t score in the first quarter. From there the quarter breakdown is 88 in the second, 84 in the third, a whopping 162 in the fourth and 6 in overtime.

So the Cowboys scored less than 10 percent of their total points in the first quarter and 33 percent of their points by halftime. Surely that contributed to their 3-5 start to the season. The Cowboys were always playing from behind. And while their comebacks throughout the season showed this team had a backbone, I have to wonder who the Cowboys would have fared if they could have scored more points earlier in the contest.

Better starts in games could mean better starts to the season, something of which the Cowboys are also in need. The Cowboys got off to only a slightly better start in 2011 than in 2012. The Cowboys were 4-4 at the midway point in 2011 and finished 8-8.

There’s an old saying – it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. Well, there’s a bit of a fallacy to that statement when it comes to the NFL. Here’s the proof. Consider the 12 teams that reached the playoffs this year. Nine of them had at least five wins at the season’s mid-point. One, Seattle, was 4-4. Two, Cincinnati and Washington, were 3-5. To reach the playoffs Cincinnati and Washington each had to finish the season 7-1. Cincinnati and Washington were just the eighth and ninth teams since 1991 to reach the postseason after a 3-5 start, according to USA Today.

Now consider the last seven Super Bowl winners. None of them reached the midpoint of their Super Bowl season with a losing record. In fact, none of them were .500. Just one – the Green Bay Packers that won Super Bowl XLV – had five wins. The others had six or more.

Finally, the Cowboys’ last two playoff seasons saw them win at least six games by the mid-point.

I made this point earlier this season but it bears repeating. In the first 10 years of the NFL’s eight-division format, 95 percent of the teams that won 10 games made the playoffs, 40.5 percent of the nine-win teams have made the playoffs and 9.8 percent of the eight-win teams have made the playoffs.

In 2012 all 12 playoff teams won at least 10 games.

If the Cowboys want to reach the playoffs in 2013, getting off to a better start to the season would be a good way to do it. And to do that, the Cowboys have got to start scoring more points earlier in games.

Next: Minimize the offensive mistakes.