In the parity-driven NFL, last season doesn't matter. The Washington Redskins, who jumped from last to first in the division this year, demonstrated how 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 the other teams in the division are even worse.
In the NFL, this is called parity. 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.
Don't believe it? Below is the full list of the rebound teams making the playoffs since 1990, and a little further down you'll find the data for the worst-to-first teams.
|Rebound Teams by Year, 1990-2015|
|Teams making the playoffs with losing records
the year before
|1991||5||Atl, Dal, Den, Det, NYJ|
|1993||3||Det, NYG, Oak|
|1994||3||Chi, Cle, NE|
|1995||3||Atl, Buf, Phi|
|1996||3||Car, Jac, NE|
|1997||3||Det, NYG, TB|
|1998||4||Ari, Atl, Buf, Dal|
|1999||4||Det, Ind, StL, Was|
|2000||4||Den, NO, NYG, Phi|
|2001||3||Chi, NE, SF|
|2002||5||Atl, Cle, Ind, NYG, Ten|
|2003||5||Bal, Car, Dal, Sea, StL|
|2004||4||Atl, NYJ, Pit, SD|
|2005||5||Car, Chi, NYG, TB, Was|
|2006||4||Bal, NO, NYJ, Phi|
|2008||4||Atl, Bal, Car, Mia|
|2011||5||Cin, Den, Det, Hou, SF|
|2012||4||Ind, Min, Sea, Was|
|2013||5||Car, KC, NO, Phi, SD|
|2015||3||Car, Min, Was
The biggest rebound since 1990 was achieved by the 2008, who compiled a 1-15 record in 2007 and reached the playoffs in 2008 with an 11-5 record. Most recently the Redskins rebounded from a 4-12 record in 2014 to a 9-7 record in 2015, going worst-to-first in the process.
Of the 89 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|
|# Teams||- -||1||2||4||13||17||23||29|
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, 1990-2015|
Prior Season Record
|1997||New York Giants||10-5-1||6-10|
|*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 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.
Just three days after the end of the 2015 season, I get the sense that there are many people in and around Cowboys Nation who think the 2016 Cowboys can somehow shortcut the rebound process by getting a healthy Tony Romo back in 2016.
Just yesterday, ESPN's Mike Sando put the Cowboys atop his list of non-playoff teams primed to bounce back in 2016.
The Cowboys will instantly become a playoff contender once Tony Romo returns to health. That makes them an obvious choice for this list.
Dallas' failure to win even when its backup quarterbacks played decently became a source of great frustration this past season, but the payoff is coming when the Cowboys select fourth overall in the 2016 draft. Dallas has turned its five most recent first-round choices into four high-end players: Dez Bryant, Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin. Adding another impact player before welcoming back Romo should be enough for the Cowboys to make a big jump in the standings.
In 2015, the Cowboys were 1-11 in games Tony Romo didn't start. The rest of the league was 20-30 when forced to start their backup quarterback because the starter was injured. Putting the 2015 season only on the performance of the backup QBs would be a little short-sighted, and would probably ensure that the Cowboys won't rebound into the playoffs in 2016.
The inability to convert on third down (Cowboys ranked 28th in third down conversion percentage), the absence of sacks (25th), the failure to generate takeaways (32nd), and the low level of red zone scoring (27th) all indicate that the issues with the 2015 Cowboys ran deeper than just Romo's absence.
The Cowboys must now set about identifying the key issues that plagued them throughout the season, and develop a plan to address those issues. They can expect to find help in the draft, in free agency, and maybe via a few new position coaches.
But even a 4-12 record doesn't automatically mean everything stinks, just as not everything was all peachy when you were 12-4. And just because social media is running at a fever pitch about how you need to draft a QB in the first round doesn't mean you have to. Similarly, just because every premier free agent running back is linked to the Cowboys doesn't mean you have to sign one of them.
But you have to have a plan for how to address the issues you've identified. And yes, that plan includes addressing the QB and RB positions among others, just maybe not in the way the Twitterverse and the screaming headlines want you to.
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 2016.
But it will take a lot of hard work. Not all draft picks will pan out the way they are expected to. Not all free agents will deliver a performance commensurate with the money you spent on them, not all players will stay healthy, and not everything will magically revert back to the way it was in 2014.
The Cowboys can get back into the playoffs in 2016. But there will be no shortcuts along the way. Bill Belichick supposedly once said, "There are no shortcuts to building a team each season. You build the foundation brick by brick."
The Cowboys would do well to heed that advice.