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Cowboys Road To The 2012 NFL Playoffs: Why Last Year Doesn't Matter

Just like Danny Coale, the NFL is wide open every year.
Just like Danny Coale, the NFL is wide open every year.

A couple of days ago, I ran across the following quote from Chargers Coach Norv Turner on the state of mind of the 32 NFL teams:

"Right now, if any one of the 32 teams isn't excited about what they're doing," Turner said, "you've got something wrong. Our goal and what we're going to get done is sustain that excitement and energy. We're going to continue to grow and get better."

This is the time of year where hope springs eternal and every team feels optimistic about the new season. Training camps are still a month away, and opening day is even further away, but all 32 teams are going into the season hopeful that this could be their year.

Because in the parity-driven NFL, last season doesn't matter. Fact is, the 'competitive balance' in the league gives each team hope of finishing at the top of the standings regardless of its record the previous season. Sometimes for no other reason than that other teams in the division are even worse. In the NFL, we also call this parity.

After the break, we'll look at three very specific reasons why last year doesn't matter, and why you're allowed to be optimistic about the Cowboys' playoff chances this season.

The churn factor: It's not a big secret anymore that the playoff field churns by about 50% from year to year. Since the the league moved to a 12-team playoff format in 1990, an average of about six new teams made the playoffs every year. Only once, in 1994, did that number dip to four teams. This long history of churn among NFL teams means that it's highly probable that about six teams that did not make the playoffs in 2011 will make the playoffs in 2012.

The rebound factor: Every year since 1990 there have been a handful of teams that had a losing record in the previous season yet still made the playoffs the following season. Last year, five out of six new playoff participants had a losing record in 2010. The Giants were the only new playoff team in 2011 that also had a winning record in 2010.

Worst-to-first factor: The rebound factor doesn't only affect teams who narrowly missed the playoffs in the previous year. For the last nine years at least one team went from "worst-to-first" in its division. Since 2000, 16 teams have managed that feat. Last year, the Broncos made the improbable transition from worst to first, albeit in a weak division that allowed the 8-8 Broncos to advance to the playoffs.

Don't believe it? Below is the full list of the Churn Factor and the Rebound Factor in the playoffs since 1990, and a little further down we have the data for the worst to first teams.

Playoff Participants by Year, 1990-2011
"Churn" Factor
teams that didn't make the
playoffs the year before
"Rebound" Factor
teams with losing records
the year before
Year # Teams Teams # Teams Teams
1990 6 Chi, Cin, KC, Mia, NO, Was
1 Chi
1991 5 Atl, Dal, Den, Det, NYJ
5 Atl, Dal, Den, Det, NYJ
1992 7 KC, Mia, Min, Phi, Pit, SD, SF 2 Pit, SD
1993 5 Den, Det, GB, NYG, Oak 3 Det, NYG, Oak
1994 5 Chi, Cle, Mia, NE, SD 3 Chi, Cle, NE
1995 4 Atl, Buf, Ind, Phi 3 Atl, Buf, Phi
1996 5 Car, Den, Jac, Min, NE 3 Car, Jac, NE
1997 5 Det, KC, Mia, NYG, TB 3 Det, NYG, TB
1998 5 Ari, Atl, Buf, Dal, NYJ 4 Ari, Atl, Buf, Dal
1999 7 Det, Ind, Sea, StL, TB, Ten, Was 4 Det, Ind, StL, Was
2000 6 Bal, Den, NO, NYG, Oak, Phi 4 Den, NO, NYG, Phi
2001 6 Chi, GB, NE, NYJ, Pit, SF 3 Chi, NE, SF
2002 5 Atl, Cle, Ind, NYG, Ten 5 Atl, Cle, Ind, NYG, Ten
2003 8 Bal, Car, Dal, Den, KC, NE, Sea, StL 5 Bal, Car, Dal, Sea, StL
2004 5 Atl, Min, NYJ, Pit, SD 4 Atl, NYJ, Pit, SD
2005 7 Car, Chi, Cin, Jac, NYG, TB, Was 5 Car, Chi, NYG, TB, Was
2006 7 Bal, Dal, KC, NO, NYJ, Phi, SD 4 Bal, NO, NYJ, Phi
2007 6 GB, Jac, Pit, TB, Ten, Was 2 TB, Was
2008 7 Atl, Ari, Bal, Car, Mia, Min, Phi 4 Atl, Bal, Car, Mia
2009 6 Cin, Dal, GB, NE, NO, NYJ 2 Cin, GB
2010 5 Atl, Chi, KC, Pit, Sea 2 Chi, Sea
2011 6 Cin, Den, Det, Hou, NYG, SF 5 Cin, Den, Det, Hou, SF

The biggest rebound since 1990 was achieved by the 2008 Dolphins, who had compiled a 1-15 record in 2007 and reached the playoffs in 2008 with an 11-5 record. Useless bits of trivia: The Cowboys have rebounded into the playoffs only two times (1998 & 2003) and prior to 2011 only had one 8-8 season since the league moved to a 16-game regular season in 1979. Unfortunately, after finishing 8-8 in 1999 under Chan Gailey, the Cowboys didn't rebound into the playoffs, instead falling to three successive years with a 5-11 record under Dave Campo.

Of the 76 teams that rebounded from a losing record into the playoffs since 1990, here's how many wins they racked up in the previous season:

Rebound teams: Wins in season prior to playoff season
Wins 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
# Teams - - 1 - - 3 11 16 23 22

And to finish off our data table bonanza, here's the full list of teams that managed that most improbable of turnarounds by going from worst to first in their division:

Teams going from "Worst-to-first" in their division by year, 1990-2011
Year Team Record Prior Season Record
1990 Cincinnati 9-7 8-8
1992 San Diego 11-5 4-12
1997 New York Giants 10-5-1 6-10
1999 Saint Louis 13-3 4-12*
1999 Indianapolis 13-3 3-13
2000 New Orleans 10-6 3-13
2001 Chicago 13-3 5-11
2001 New England 11-5 5-11
2003 Carolina 11-5 7-9
2003 Kansas City 13-3 8-8*
2004 Atlanta 11-5 5-11
2004 San Diego 12-4 4-12*
2005 Chicago 11-5 5-11
2005 Tampa Bay 11-5 5-11
2006 Baltimore 13-3 6-10*
2006 New Orleans 10-6 3-13
2006 Philadelphia 10-6 6-10
2007 Tampa Bay 9-7 4-12
2008 Miami 11-5 1-15
2009 New Orleans 13-3 8-8
2010 Kansas City 10-6 4-12
2011 Denver 8-8 4-12
*Tied for last place in division

All of these numbers have a very simple message: Anything can happen in the NFL. Every new NFL season is always also a new chance for teams that fell short of the playoffs the season before. The NFL is intrinsically designed to be a parity-driven league; the draft, revenue sharing, the salary cap, compensatory draft picks, all the way through the schedule; everything about the NFL is designed so that every team from every market has a legit opportunity to compete year-in and year-out.

Every year a team that nobody was thinking of as a contender suddenly strings together a couple of wins early in the year, starts playing like a good football team in the middle of the season and actually becomes a good football team as it clinches a playoff spot late in the season.

There's no reason why the Cowboys couldn't be that team in 2012.

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