Hope may spring eternal, but fall winds leave the flames of confidence flickering as the 2013 season grows shorter and shorter.
The Cowboys have six games left to right the ship and turn average into success. Most observers understand that Dallas is in position to still win the NFC East and host a playoff game. At 5-5, only a half game behind the Eagles, no one is counting the Cowboys out of that race. Few, however, see Dallas capable of making any noise in the playoffs. There is no scenario currently expected in which Dallas wouldn't be traveling to Seattle or New Orleans for a divisional playoff game and that's the point where fans imagine an inglorious end to the campaign.
If that were to be the case, I doubt many Cowboys fans would look at things any differently than they are now; this is a team with plenty of building to do.
What I wanted to do was to examine whether or not there had been any recent precedence for a team similar to the 2013 Cowboys of having true post-season success. I define post season success as a team making their Conference Championship; being in the NFL's version of the Final Four. That, to me, defines a successful campaign where one can realistically go into the next season hoping some additional tweaks could morph them into a championship team.
First, of course, we need to define what the 2013 Cowboys are exactly; at least from the macro view.
The 2013 Cowboys are a team coming off of an 8-8 campaign the prior season. They are a team sitting at 5-5 after 10 games, and they are a team that suffered an embarrassing blowout on the road. Have there been any teams which fall into this category over the last few seasons? Glad you asked.
An interesting stat that I found was that in and of itself, the spanking Dallas took at the hands of the Saints last week is not a death knell on having one of those successful seasons. Of the 24 "Final Four" teams over the past six seasons, 11 of them (almost half) all suffered a crushing blowout of at least 24 points. 8 teams lost by at least 28 points, while 2 actually lost games by 40 or more and still ended up playing during Championship Weekend.
The worst offender? The 2010 New York Jets traveled to New England in Week 13 and were shellacked by the Patriots by 42 points! Those Jets were already established as a good team, however, entering the 10-game mark with a record of 8-2. They also were coming off an 11-8 campaign (including playoffs), so there is little comparison to these 2013 Cowboys here.
For The Record I: 9 of those 11 games were in road contests and all but three of them happened after the halfway point of the season.
For The Record II: The 2010 Patriots (14-2) might have been the most disappointing team of this era. Out of the Final Four teams (Green Bay, Pittsburgh, Chicago, NY Jets) the Patriots were the "worst" loss for three of them! That's an amazing feat that ended with their divisional round loss to the Jets.
The next factor still gives a glimmer of hope. Dallas was a middling, 8-8 team last year; the foundation that this season is built on. Building a championship team is normally a lengthy process that takes a few years to materialize. As such, you aren't often going to see a team rise to contender status after having a lackluster prior season. At least that's what I thought.
It appears it isn't as insurmountable a challenge as it seems, in this the era of parity (parody?). 8 of the 24 "Final Four" teams finished the previous season with records of 8-8 or worse; the fate of Dallas in 2012.
Good news! Being "just OK" last year is not the roadblock it could have been!
For The Record III: Although 8 teams have made it to the Final Four after being .500 or worse the previous campaign, only two have made the Super Bowl. That would be the 2008 Arizona Cardinals and the 2009 New Orleans Saints, both turning in 8-8 records the prior year.
The final factor in our quest for a lifeline, and the most disappointing as far as the Cowboys are concerned, is the record after 10 games. Unfortunately for Dallas, most teams that make it to the Final Four, have shown their worth by this point of the season. 22 of the 24 teams from the last six seasons were all above .500 after 10 games.
Only the 2007 San Diego Chargers (5-5) and the 2009 New York Jets (4-6) were able to pull themselves from the pack and into the Conference rounds.
Are the Cowboys hopes dashed? It sure seems that way. There hasn't been a single team in the last six years that was at .500 or worse after 10 game, had suffered a ridiculous blowout of more than 24 points and that was just an average team the year before that made noise in the playoffs.
However, if we stretch the criteria just a bit, we can still glean a glimmer of hope from some previous situations. Here's a look at the closest we could come.
Coming off a 7-9 2009 campaign, the Bears righted the ship under Lovie Smith with a defense steered by Rod Marinelli. In Week 14, the team hosted the New England Patriots and got run over, losing by 29 points. They course-corrected and were able to make it to the NFC finals before bowing out to division rival and Super Bowl champion Green Bay. The difference between them and the 2013 Cowboys? The Bears were a bonafide good team after 10 games, sporting a 7-3 record.
The 2006 Giants were just an 8-8 team, but the next year's version hoisted the Lombardi. In Week 12, the G-Men were trounced by the Minnesota Vikings at home, losing by 24 points. I'm not wasting anymore keystrokes over the Giants, but know the difference between this team and the 2013 Cowboys is once again a 7-3 record after 10 games.
The Ravens bounced back from a dysfunctional 5-11 2007 season to make it to the '08 Final Four. While they were above .500 at the 10-game mark, it was barely at a pace of 6-4. Those 10 games included a 28 point thrashing on the road at the hands of the Indianapolis Colts. We're now into an area where Dallas could start to gain some hope from the past.
Now we're getting somewhere. The 2007 Eagles were a nondescript 8-8. At the 10-game mark, they might as well have been .500, sitting at 5-4-1. Their next game? A huge blowout loss in Week 12 to the Baltimore Ravens, in Maryland, 36-7, dropping them to 5-5-1. They'd bounce back, however, and make it all the way to the Conference Championship before losing to...
Pow! Now we're cooking with propane! The 2008 Cardinals were as close to the Cowboys current situation as one could get. Their 2007 record? 8-8. Check. While their mark at the 10-game point was an impressive 7-3, don't let that dissuade you. They'd go on to lose 4 of their next 5 contests before earning a trip to the Wild Card round in Week 17. Their worst defeat? Losing by 40 points (!) Week 16 versus New England on the road.
More to the point? Arizona was able to sweep the NFC West that year, going 6-0 in that division. That's right, they went 3-7 against the rest of the league. They were 2-6 against teams with a winning record, including that OT victory that robbed Dallas of Tony Romo for the middle portion of that season.
The Cardinals were beaten by 20 points or more on 4 different occasions in 2008, yet still managed to make it to the promise land to play one of the best Super Bowl's in recent memory behind their previously undrafted quarterback.
So, there's your hope, ladies and gentlemen. It's going to be a tough stretch over the next six games. But there is precedent for a team in the situation Dallas finds it making it's way to glory. Now whether or not there's precedent for a team that plays like Dallas does... well that's an entirely different article.
Here's a look at the complete situation for the 24 previous Final Four teams.