Many fans expect that with a healthy Tony Romo back in 2016, the Cowboys will simply pick up where they left off in 2014. And that's okay. We're fans. It's our job to be optimistic.
The "healthy Romo" narrative requires that we see 2015 as just a glitch, that the 4-12 season was an anomaly resulting from injuries to key players, and that 2015 was clearly an outlier for this team.
But what if the 12-4 finish in 2014 was an outlier? What if 2015 is much closer to the norm than anybody likes to admit? After all, the Cowboys were an 8-8 team for three years before suddenly improving by four wins in 2014, so what's to say the baseline for this team isn't 8-8? In fact, starting with 8-8 as the baseline would make last year's 4-12 record much less of an outlier than it would be if you consider 12-4 the baseline.
But while the discussion of where the Cowboys' baseline is could provide for hours of animated discussion, what's not up for discussion is that the Cowboys were a 4-12 team in 2015. The Cowboys get all the accoutrements that come with such a record: A top four draft pick, the opportunity to coach the Senior Bowl, a last-place schedule in 2016. And they'll have to work their way up from that record in 2016.
David Helman of Dallascowboys.com for example thinks the Cowboys are in a good position to move up quickly from that 4-12 record.
It won't count for much, but this has got to be one of the most competitive 4-12 teams ever. Think that's my main takeaway from the season.— David Helman (@HelmanDC) January 3, 2016
I don't now whether the "competitiveness" narrative is a subplot of the "healthy Romo" story or a standalone story, but I do know that it sounds very appealing because it suggests that the Cowboys can rebound nicely from the 2015 season.
In response to Helman's tweet, and suspecting that Helman's underlying premise is true, our own neithan20000 wondered whether there was a way to show that competitiveness via the Cowboys point differential.
@HelmanDC old like to see point diff. Compared to other 4-12 teams. I suspect it would confirm what you said.— Jason Thomas (@neithan2000) January 3, 2016
Turns out, the 2015 Cowboys don't look all that great in this comparison. Since 1992, 58 teams finished the season with a 4-12. The 2015 Cowboys only rank a middling 22nd with a -99 point differential.
And there's more sobering stuff to be gleaned from looking at the historical record of 4-12 teams in the league.
- Only 15 of 58 teams (26%) had a winning record the following year, 12 (21%) made the playoffs the following year.
- Nine teams did not improve their record the following year.
- On average, the 47 teams that did improve their record improved by about three wins to 7.6 wins. Those same teams improved their scoring differential by almost 100 points the next year (from -120 to -25).
- Of the 58 teams, only 8 (14%) managed a double-digit win season in the following year. Five improved to 10 wins, one each improved to 11, 12, and 13 wins respectively.
If you're a team trying to rebound from a 4-12 record, the numbers above aren't particularly encouraging. But if you're into long odds, there is one team among the 58 that could provide an interesting template for the Cowboys.
The biggest jump among the 58 teams came from the Rams, who were 4-12 in 1998 and improved to 13-3 in 1999 and won the Super Bowl that same year with the Greatest Show on Turf. Of note, that was also the season Kurt Warner took over QB duties from Tony Banks, the Rams traded for RB Marshall Faulk and drafted WR Torry Holt with the sixth overall pick.
In 1999 Kurt Warner would compile a 109.2 passer rating and throw for 8.7 yards per attempt. In 2014, Tony Romo compiled a 113.2 passer rating and threw for 8.5 yrds per attempt, and if he could repeat that performance in 2016, the Cowboys would be a premium running back and a top pick for a wide receiver away from getting back to double digit wins and perhaps a deep playoff run.
If that is what it would take, would you sign up for that?