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To Cowboys Fans: Why Last Year Doesn't Matter And Why You're Allowed To Be Optimistic About 2014

A look at three very specific reasons why last year doesn't matter for NFL teams, and why you're allowed to be optimistic about the Cowboys' playoff chances this season.

Harry How

Right now, every single one of the 32 NFL teams is excited about what they're doing, and every single fan base believes that if things work out just the right way, their team will make the playoffs.

This is the time of year where hope springs eternal and everybody feels optimistic about the new season. As Cowboys fans, we collectively found reasons to be optimistic about a draft class where the majority of draft picks were selected in the seventh round. We're still telling each other why the Cowboys free agency performance - in which the players who left the team and the players who didn't sign with the team generated a lot more excitement than the players we did end up signing - was a good thing. We've convinced ourselves that the inability to spend big in free agency is actually beneficial in the long run, if only because it limits the amount of money the front office could have sunk into questionable player contracts.

To varying degrees, almost every Cowboys fan will acknowledge that he or she is perhaps just a little bit more optimistic about the 2014 Cowboys right now than an objective look at the facts warrants. But that's okay. We're fans. It's our job to be optimistic.

And at this point in time, other teams are no different. Training camps are still more than a month away, and the opening game is even further away, but all 32 teams are going into the season hopeful that This Could Be The 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, this is called parity.

  • 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 twice, in 1994 and 2012, did that number dip to four teams. This long history of churn among NFL teams means that it's highly probable that five or six teams that did not make the playoffs in 2013 will make the playoffs in 2014.
  • 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. In 2013, all five new playoff participants came off a losing record in 2012.
  • Worst-to-first factor: The rebound factor doesn't only affect teams who narrowly missed the playoffs in the previous year. For the last eleven years at least one team went from "worst-to-first" in its division. Since 2000, 20 teams have managed that feat. Last year, the Eagles and Panthers made the improbable transition from worst to first: The Eagles rebounded from a 4-12 record to win the NFC East, the Panthers were in a three-way tie for the worst W/L record in the NFC South in 2012 before winning the division last year.

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 you'll find the data for the Worst-to-first teams.

Playoff Participants by Year, 1990-2013
"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
2012 4 Ind, Min, Sea, Was 4 Ind, Min, Sea, Was
2013 5 Car, KC, NO, Phi, SD 5 Car, KC, NO, Phi, SD

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. More recently, the Chiefs rebounded from a 2-14 record in 2012 to an 11-5 record in 2013, while the Colts sucked for Luck in 2011 (2-14) before getting lucky in 2012 (11-5). A 9-win swing from season to season is not an everyday occurrence in the NFL, but you can't rule it out either. Two playoff participants from 2012 demonstrated last year that those swings can go the other way as well. The Texans followed up a 12-4 playoff campaign in 2012 with a league-worst 2-14 record in 2013, while the Falcons fell from 13-3 in 2012 to 4-12 in 2013.

Of the 85 teams that rebounded from a losing record into the playoffs since 1990, here's how many wins they racked up in the previous season:

Football Position Rebound teams: Wins in season prior to playoff season
Wins 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
# Teams - - 1 2 4 12 17 23 26

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, 1990-2013
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
2012 Washington 10-6
2013 Philadelphia 10-6
2013 Carolina 12-4
*Tied for last place in division by W/L record

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, even 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.

Recency bias is the tendency to think that trends and patterns we observe in the recent past will continue in the future. Because it’s easier, our minds are hardwired to use our recent experience as the baseline for what will happen in the future. In many situations, this bias works just fine, especially if you’re making short-term predictions. Even for highly changeable events like the weather or the stock market, making short-term predictions according to events in the recent past works fine much of the time.

Predicting the future in the long term according to what has recently occurred is no more accurate than flipping a coin. Take the data above: over the last 24 years, an average of 5.7 new teams made it into the playoffs every year. That means that only half of each year’s NFL playoff participants make it back to the playoffs the following year. Yet every pre-season team ranking has last year’s top teams at the top. Why? Recency bias.

Yes, there are some constants between the 2013 Cowboys and the 2014 Cowboys. But there are also some significant changes. Simply saying something like "The Cowboys will be bad this year because they were bad last year" is nothing more than an admission of analytical incompetence and intellectual laziness.

The Cowboys could very well end up winning the NFC East, just as they could very well end up last in the division. If they do, it has nothing to do with last year’s team, and everything to do with this year’s team. And for the 8-8 Cowboys, it wouldn't even take a 2008-Dolphins-sized win-swing for that. A three-game swing in either direction could mean the difference between a top and a bottom finish in the East.

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 can't be that team in 2014.

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