Intuitively, many have been saying the the Dallas Cowboys should be a much better team in 2016 than they were in 2015. Of course with a 4-12 record in 2015, it's hard not be a better team, that's simply math. But the return of Tony Romo and Dez Bryant to health, along with the drafting of Ezekiel Elliott, have caused many to project the Cowboys as a bounce-back team in 2016, but just how high that bounce is still remains a point of contention.
One analysts who believes the Cowboys are due for a big bounce is ESPN's Bill Barnwell. In a new column, Barnwell takes his normal deep-dive into a subject, this one looking at which teams should rise in 2016, and which teams should decline. Instead of relying on intuition or conventional wisdom, Barnwell looks at some cold, hard stats to make the case. These stats have been tested over time to provide a decent framework for making these kinds of predictions. Of course they don't always prove to be accurate, no forecasting model ever is, but much more often than not, they do come in on the money.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys and Chargers have relative mountains of hard evidence suggesting that they played better than their records in 2015 and are likely to take a step toward contention in 2016.
We'd like to believe it will be more than a step toward contention, we'd like to believe it's more of a return to 2014, when Dallas was definitely a contender.
So just what is the hard data that supports such a position?
One point of data is a team's record in close games. Our good friend rabblerousr used to make the point that winning close games is really a 50-50 proposition in the NFL. A few teams have a consistent record of outperforming that fact, but most teams win as many as they lose in close games. The really great teams beat the competition by more than seven points on a consistent basis. So if a team has a losing record in close games one year, there is good evidence that the next year should return more to the norm. According to Barnwell, the Cowboys were 2-6 in such games last year, so even a break-even mark this season would add two games to the win total.
Next up is turnover margin. This is something we've discussed over an over, the Cowboys went from a +6 turnover margin in 2014 to a -22 in 2015. Yes, that reads minus 22, dead last in the league. More stats from Barnwell:
Dallas' defense, meanwhile, fell much further. In 2014, Rod Marinelli's unit led the league by forcing turnovers on 17.2 percent of opposing possessions. Last year, with arguably better personnel on defense, besides missing injured CB Orlando Scandrick, the Cowboys posted a takeaway rate of 6.0 percent, the worst rate in football. They should be somewhere in the middle in 2016, which will make life easier for the defense. Since 1989, teams that posted turnover margins between minus-25 and minus-15, as the Cowboys did a year ago, produced an average turnover margin of -0.1 the following season, improving by 18.6 turnovers. They also won 3.1 more games the next season. Better luck in close games and an improved turnover rate on defense should represent a notable improvement for the Cowboys, and that's before factoring in the likelihood of healthier seasons from Romo and Dez Bryant.
Data point number three: The Cowboys gave up 30 immediate points on turnovers, these are points from interception and fumble returns. That was tied for second-worst in the league. These numbers are pretty random, so the Cowboys should regress towards the mean in 2016, which is about 17 points a year.
Data point number four: Blowing halftime leads. Believe it or now, teams that blow a lot of halftime leads one year tend to not blow that many the next. The idea is that to lead a game you must be doing something right, and that over time losing the leads will even out. Basically, the theory is that you're actually a better team that your record shows if you're blowing games after halftime and next year usually proves it. Here's Barnwell again:
Since 1989, teams that have blown (the admittedly arbitrary measure of) four or more halftime leads in a given season have blown just 1.7 such leads the following year. Those 81 teams have improved by an average of 2.2 wins the following season.
So how about the Cowboys:
On the other side of the spectrum, the Cowboys blew five halftime leads, including an 11-point advantage over the Falcons in Week 3. The Giants and Chargers failed to hold onto four each. These three teams, along with the Titans, keep popping up as strong candidates to turn things around in 2016.
And the final stat is something that our own OCC has pointed out, strength of schedule is definitely in the Cowboys favor this season. Based on a strength of schedule expert Barnwell cites in his article, the Cowboys had the 11th toughest schedule in 2015, this year they are expected to have the 32nd-toughest schedule, that makes it the easiest one in the NFL.
Given all that, it's easy to see why the Cowboys are a candidate for the biggest bounce-back season in 2016.
Big hat tip to Bill Barnwell for this article, so give him a click since we borrowed extensively from his article for this write-up.