Many fans expect that in 2017, the Cowboys will simply pick up where they left off in 2016. And that's okay. We're fans. It's our job to be optimistic.
But repeating a 13-3 season is much harder than it sounds. Since 1990, when the league moved to a 12-team playoff format, 38 teams finished the season with a 13-3 record, and only four of those teams were able to repeat that 13-3 record the following year.
And there's more sobering stuff to be gleaned from looking at the historical record of 13-3 teams in the league.
- 17 of 38 teams (45%) or a little less than half of all 13-3 teams, failed to record double-digit wins the following season
- 16 of 38 teams (42%) did not make the playoffs the following year.
- 12 of 38 teams (32%) didn't even manage a winning record the season after going 13-3.
- Not a single one of the 38 teams improved its record in the season after going 13-3.
For the Cowboys, those are not particularly encouraging stats. And the Cowboys themselves know how hard it can be to follow up a 13-3 season after they dropped from 13-3 in 2007 to 9-7 in 2008.
The biggest drops since 1992 came courtesy of the 2001 Bears and 2012 Falcons, who both followed up their 13-3 season with 4-12 seasons the following year.
In the parity-driven NFL, last season doesn't matter. In the NFC East, the 2015 Washington Redskins jumped from last to first in the division, and the Cowboys did the same in 2016, demonstrating 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.
After finishing 13-3, it would be easy to sit back and think that a few changes here or there will be enough to get the Cowboys into the NFC Championship game or beyond in 2017. But that would probably be wrong.
The 2016 Cowboys won the NFC East. Yay.
The 2016 Cowboys advanced to the Divisional round of the playoffs. Yippee skippee.
Dak Prescott broke a boatload of rookie records. Ezekiel Elliott led the league in rushing. The Cowboys tied a franchise record with 13 wins.
You know what's even harder to do than any of those things?
Yet the Cowboys won't simply be content to repeat, they want to go one better and make it to the NFC Championship game at least, preferably even to the Super Bowl.
So how's that going to happen?
By ruthlessly evaluating their own talent and taking decisive corrective action where needed. Success in the NFL depends in part on an organization's ability to dispassionately evaluate the talent on its roster, and to move on quickly if it sees that the talent on the roster doesn't meet the franchise's requirements.
But when you just finished 13-3, you have a tendency to see everything through rose-colored glasses. It makes you think that an offense that finished only tenth in 3rd-down efficiency just needs to run the ball a little more often and everything will fall into place. That a defense that ranked 24th in defensive passer rating and allowed the second-highest completion rate in the league just needs to cut a veteran or two and all will be well. That you are so good you are willing to let your All Pro backup QB leave town without compensation "because he deserves it." That a defensive line that had a cute nickname but had trouble getting pressure on the QB all season just needs an upgrade or two and everything will be just hunky dory.
If the 2016 Cowboys had finished 7-9, I promise you that you would not be comfortable with any of the things above.
And it's that sense of urgency that the Cowboys must attack the offseason with. Every team makes mistakes in the draft and in free agency. Not all draft picks pan out the way they were expected to. Not all free agents deliver a performance commensurate with the money you spent on them. And I would suggest that the better teams in the league are better at dispassionately identifying those mistakes, and are willing and able to correct those mistakes faster than the lesser teams do.
Good franchises will err on the side of speed in identifying and correcting their talent acquisition mistakes and roster holes. In 1992 Jimmy Johnson decided the Cowboys needed help in the secondary and carpet bombed the draft, investing seven of his 15 picks in defensive backs. Between 2011 and 2014, the Cowboys invested three of their four first-round picks on offensive linemen to get their offensive line back into shape. Over the last three drafts, the Cowboys have invested at least two picks each year in defensive linemen, and don't really have all that much to show for those picks, so they may want to redouble their efforts here, and not just in the draft.
From everything I've seen from Jason Garrett and the Cowboys over the past few years, I believe the Cowboys can be very dispassionate at identifying and correcting mistakes and/or needs, and do it faster than they have done in the past.
The Cowboys have about 30 percent turnover every year. That would mean about 20 new faces on the roster next year. All of which will be absolutely necessary if the Cowboys want to repeat as a 13-3 team.