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Why You're Allowed To Be Optimistic About Cowboys' Playoff Chances In 2016

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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.

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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 long-term future based on what has recently occurred is no more accurate than flipping a coin. We know that over the last 26 years in the NFL, an average of 5.6 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 still sitting at the top. Why? Recency bias.

Yes, there are some constants between the 2015 Cowboys and the 2016 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.

At this point in the year, 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 that will likely yield only one sure-fire starter this season. We keep telling each other that a conservative approach to free agency is a good thing, and that signing your own players to extensions is better than shopping for outside help. There are even whispers about Cowboys fans somewhere who've convinced themselves that the combination of Kellen Moore and Dak Prescott is a better backup plan than the Weeden/Cassel/Moore plan from last year.

To varying degrees, almost every Cowboys fan will acknowledge that he or she is perhaps just a little bit more optimistic about the 2016 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 fans of other teams are no different. Training camps are still more than a month away, and the season opener 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 that the playoff field churns by about 50% from year to year. Since the league moved to a 12-team playoff format in 1990, an average of about six new teams made the playoffs every year. Only three times (1994, 2012, 2015) 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 2015 will make the playoffs in 2016.
  • 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. Of the 89 teams that rebounded into the playoffs since 1990, 13 rebounded from a 4-12 record, most recently the Washington Redskins who rebounded from a 4-12 record in 2014 to a 9-7 record and a playoff berth in 2015.
  • Worst-to-first factor: The rebound factor doesn't only affect teams who narrowly missed the playoffs in the previous year. Since 2000, 21 teams have managed to go "worst-to-first" in their divisions. Last year, the Redskins made the improbable transition from worst to first.

All of these factoids 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 legitimate opportunity to compete year-in and year-out. Even the Eagles, at least theoretically.

The Cowboys could very well end up winning the NFC East, just as there's a chance that they could end up last in the division again. If they do, it has nothing to do with last year’s team, and everything to do with this year’s team.

What happened in 2015, stayed in 2015. It has no bearing on what has yet to happen in 2016. In the NFL, last year doesn't matter.

And that's precisely why you're allowed to be optimistic about the Cowboys' playoff chances in 2016.

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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
Playoff teams that didn't make the
playoffs the year before
"Rebound" Factor
Playoff 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
2014 5 Ari, Bal, Dal, Det, Pit 1 Det
2015 4
Hou, KC, Min, Was 3 Car, Min, Was

The biggest rebound since 1990 was achieved by the 2008 Dolphins, who reached the playoffs with an 11-5 record after stumbling to an 1-15 record the year before. 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, 1990 - 2015
Wins 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
# 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
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
5-11
2013 Philadelphia 10-6
4-12
2013 Carolina 12-4
7-9*
2015 Washington 9-7 4-12
*Tied for last place in division by W/L record