The Cowboys’ recent two-game winning-streak has restored optimism about the team’s 2018 fortunes. In fact, many are now saying Dallas is the team to beat in the NFC East. That’s all good because it’s always better to be rooting for a team with immediate future prospects than, say, hoping your team loses so they’ll get a better draft pick (that sucks).
There is, however, a rather vocal contingent of Cowboys’ fans who aren’t particularly attracted to a rather mediocre team making the playoffs and immediately getting bounced. You’ll find this sentiment on Twitter, radio talk shows and BTB’s own comments section.
And let’s face reality, right now this is a mediocre team. The 5-5 record is mediocre. The team has a +13 point differential on the season, which translates to the team being 1.3 better than opponents on any given day. That’s mediocre.
Here’s the team’s margin of victory by game this season:
What you see is a lot of close games with Dallas winning some and losing some. Seven of the team’s games have been one-score affairs. These are games where a bounce, a key play, or a referees’ call could be the difference between winning and losing.
Dallas is 4-3 in these games, which is about right. Fans could argue that Dallas is a dumb coaching decision (Houston) and another dumb coaching decision (Washington) away from being 7-3. Fans could also argue the team is a a couple plays away from being 3-7 (Detroit, Atlanta).
This is the mantra of all mediocre NFL teams. They play lots of one-score games where the outcome could have been different based upon one play. But teams in these situations generally see the won-loss record in such games even out. Mediocre teams are a bounce or two away from a playoff spot or a top six draft pick; it’s the nature of the parity-driven NFL.
Want more? Pro Football Reference uses point differentials and combines them with strength of schedule to come up with their “Simple Rating System”. Based upon this metric, the Cowboys have a +0.6 number, meaning the team would be a 0.6 point favorite over an average NFL team.
In short, mediocre. Average. And definitely not elite.
So even if the Cowboys manage to win the equally mediocre NFC East there’s no reason for hope, right? I mean, if the team is mediocre, surely there’s no reason to think they could reach the playoffs and then beat elite teams such as the Los Angeles Rams (10.6 SRS) or New Orleans Saints (+14.1 SRS)?
Well, no. In fact, quite a few mediocre teams from the recent past have parlayed mediocre regular seasons into deep playoff runs and even Super Bowl wins.
I looked at the last ten seasons and ranked every team that reached their conference championship by their regular season average margin of victory. Here’s the results:
Teams that won the Super Bowl are shaded grey. Several things jump out here:
- First, the current New Orleans Saints team is perhaps the best team of the past 11 years, with a 14.1 SRS. That is better than any team’s average margin of victory (MOV) other than the 2012 New England Patriots. The Saints are every bit as good as they appear to be.
- High quality teams generally have a 7+ margin of victory. Twenty-nine of the 40 teams here had 7+ average margins of victory.
- Only eleven teams with MOVs of <7 points (mediocre) reached the conference championship.
- However, three of these “mediocre” teams not only reached the conference championship, but ended up winning the Super Bowl.
- Notice two teams that had zero or negative point differentials managed to reach the conference championship. In fact, both reached the Super Bowl and one won the big game.
Here’s another way of looking at these results. We’ll segment the teams into these groups:
- Elite: MOVs of 10+
- Very good good: 7-10
- Mediocre: <7
What we see is pretty surprising. While the “elite” teams performed best (8 of 10 reaching the Super Bowl), the number of Super Bowl appearances and Super Bowl wins were fairly evenly spread across the three groups.
Nearly half (five of eleven) of the mediocre teams managed to reach the Super Bowl. Three went on to win the trophy, the same number as the “very good” group and only one less than the “elite” group.
What this tells us is that a mediocre team reaching the playoffs have a legitimate chance of success once they get there.
Let’s take a look at these “mediocre” exceptions:
“MOV” is margin of victory, “result” tells us how the team’s season ended and “margin” is the result of the team’s final game.
What interests me is four teams with MOVs of <4 reached the Super Bowl and three of them won it. In fact, a team with a negative MOV (the 2011 New York Giants, of course) won the Super Bowl. And a team with a +0.1 MOV (the 2008 Arizona Cardinals) came within a miraculous play of also winning the Super Bowl.
Would I rather be a fan of the New Orleans Saints? Sure. They look like a legitimate juggernaut and their fans should basically have a “Super Bowl or bust” attitude similar to early 90’s Cowboys fans.
But that doesn’t make the Cowboys current state hopeless. The NFL is a funny league. Playoffs are a one-game competition, not a 7-game series and sometimes “mediocre” teams just match up well with the “elite” opponent. Other times the stars align and a mediocre team finds their various parts coming together at exactly the right time.
Imagine the Cowboys defense not only performing as they have throughout the season but actually getting better with, say, Demarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory and David Irving combining to help create an unstoppable front four that dominates opponents without needing to blitz.
Imagine the addition of Amari Cooper allows the offense to graduate to a 25-28 point unit that can at least compete and hang with teams such as Los Angeles and even New Orleans.
Unlikely? Sure. Impossible? History tells us not at all.