Recently in the NFL, we’ve seen roughly a 50% turnover from the previous season in terms of teams making the playoffs. Also over the past few years, we see an average of one team going from having an abysmal, last-place season to winning their division and making the playoffs in the following year. Today, Football Outsiders put together a list of the eight teams that could pull off that feat, and ranked them in order of who is most likely to do it. You might have guessed who is at the top of that list.
1. Dallas Cowboys
Playoff odds: 50.5 percent (8th of 32 teams)
Two years ago, Dallas went 12-4 and ranked sixth overall in DVOA. Last year, the Cowboys went 4-12 and ranked 27th. The main difference between the teams was health on offense. The Cowboys ranked about the same in defense and special teams each year.
That’s an interesting point that we’ve made several times on this site. The Cowboys defense in 2015 wasn't all that much different from the Cowboys defense in 2014, it was the offense that was the problem. The fact that the offense was the problem is pretty intuitive, but what is missed by many casual observers is the way that affects the defense.
In the chat we had Football Outsiders the other day, the subject was brought up again, and it’s not just time of possession. Many observers have stated that the Cowboys hope to repeat their 2014 season by going back to winning the time of possession battle, but winning that really does not correlate to helping the defense. Our own Jim Scott proved this out earlier this offseason and Football Outsiders agrees. The Cowboys were actually very similar in time of possession in 2014 and 2015. The big key is for the offense to score points while winning that time of possession battle, then you put the opposing offense in a real bind to score and keep up, and that’s when mistakes happen. Which brings us to another point Football Outsiders makes in believing the Cowboys could go ‘worst to first’ - creating turnovers.
There's also a strong indicator that the Dallas defense will be more productive in 2016. Last year, the Cowboys ranked last in the NFL, ending only 6.0 percent of opponent drives with a turnover. Having a turnover rate that low almost always regresses toward the mean the following season, just like it did for the Jets' defense between 2014 and 2015. The Cowboys are unlikely to be a good defense, given the questions about the pass rush with Greg Hardy gone and DeMarcus Lawrence suspended for four games. But a better turnover ratio makes it more likely they'll be an average defense instead of a bad one.
The Cowboys defense may not be that much better in terms of personnel going into 2016, but they should get more turnovers for two reasons. One, the Cowboys offense should once again score points, forcing opposing offenses to take more chances and consequently make more mistakes. And two, the Cowboys were extremely unlucky last year in getting turnovers, a simple regression to the mean statistically should account for more.