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Relax, Cowboys fans: Why last year doesn’t matter in the NFL and why it’s okay to be optimistic about 2018

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Why you’re allowed to be optimistic about the Cowboys’ playoff chances this season.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Anything can happen in the NFL. Every new NFL season is always 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 legit opportunity to compete year-in and year-out.

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.

Yet you wouldn’t notice that if you were to look at the majority of season outlooks published at this time of the year, as most of them seem to do little more than copy last year’s standings and add a little “surprise” here or there.

Case in point: SI.com’s Prediction for every NFL team’s 2018 season record published last month. It’s a 5,800+ word missive in which author Jonathan Jones boldly declares that “next season’s playoffs will probably look a lot like last season’s,” and has all eight division champions from 2017 repeating in 2018.

Do you know how often all eight division champs have repeated since the NFL moved to an eight-division format in 2002? Never. Not once.

And I’m not trying to pick on SI.com particularly, theirs was just the first 2018 projection that popped up on my Google search. Plenty of other projections follow a similar pattern where they stick pretty close to last year’s standings.

But why is that?

Recency bias.

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: If it’s 75° outside today, odds are it will also be around 75° tomorrow, give or take a little. But it’s unlikely temperatures will jump or drop by 30° tomorrow. Not impossible, but highly improbable.

But predicting the future in the long-term according to what has recently occurred is no more accurate than flipping a coin.

Take the NFL: Since 1990, when the NFL moved to a 12-team playoff format, an average of 5.7 new teams made it into the playoffs every year (see detailed table at the bottom of this post). That means only half of each year’s NFL playoff participants make it back to the playoffs the following year. Yet every preseason team ranking has last year’s top teams at the top. Why? Recency bias.

So what does all this mean for the Cowboys? It means that the six NFC playoff teams from 2017 (Eagles, Vikings, Rams, Saints, Panthers, Falcons), frequently mentioned as “locks” to repeat as playoff teams this year, are anything but “locks”. There is a strong likelihood that at least two, maybe three, and possibly even four of those teams will not repeat as playoff teams in 2018.

And those vacated playoff spots will be filled by teams that had a less-than-stellar record in 2018, perhaps by the likes of the Packers (7-9 in 2017) or 49ers (6-10), and some folks even like the Saquon Barkley-enabled but Eli Manning-disabled Giants (3-13) to make the playoffs. And if these teams make the playoffs, it will be all about what they did in 2018 and not about what they did in 2017.

And why shouldn’t the Cowboys be one of the teams to fill one of the vacated playoff spots? Sure, there are some constants between the 2017 Cowboys and the 2018 Cowboys. But there are also some significant differences.

The 2018 Cowboys could very well end up winning the NFC East, just as they could very well end up last in the division. If they do, it has nothing to do with last year’s team, and everything to do with this year’s team.

Every year a team that nobody was thinking of as a contender suddenly strings together a couple of wins early in the year, starts playing like a good football team in the middle of the season and actually becomes a good football team as it clinches a playoff spot late in the season.

There’s no reason why the Cowboys can’t be that team in 2018.

Which begs the question, if the NFL playoff field churns by about 50% from year to year, which three NFC playoff teams from 2017 will fail to repeat as playoff participants in 2018?

You’ve probably heard all about how strong the NFC is this year, how last year’s NFC playoff teams got even better in the offseason, and how this or that 2017 playoff team is already a “lock” to make the playoffs.

The funny thing about that is five of the six teams that made the NFC playoffs last season sat out the playoffs the year before. The Falcons are the only NFC team to make the playoffs the last two seasons. You’d think that would somehow factor into the projections for 2018. But - recency bias.

In the parity-driven NFL, last season doesn’t matter. Outside of the Patriots, there are very few teams that have shown a year-on-year consistency that would allow you to confidently project them as a playoff team year after year.

Over the last 10 years, the Patriots have made the playoffs nine times, the Packers eight, and the Steelers seven times. Five more teams (ATL, BAL, CIN, IND, SEA) managed six appearances, the rest of the league was a hit-and-miss playoff proposition. On the other hand, only two teams have not made the playoffs at least once in the last 10 years: Cleveland and Tampa Bay.

And that’s why last year doesn’t matter for NFL teams, and why you’re allowed to be optimistic about the Cowboys’ playoff chances this season.


Playoff Participants by Year, 1990-2017
"Churn" Factor
teams that didn't make the
playoffs the year before
Year # Teams Teams
1990 6 Chi, Cin, KC, Mia, NO, Was
1991 5 Atl, Dal, Den, Det, NYJ
1992 7 KC, Mia, Min, Phi, Pit, SD, SF
1993 5 Den, Det, GB, NYG, Oak
1994 5 Chi, Cle, Mia, NE, SD
1995 4 Atl, Buf, Ind, Phi
1996 5 Car, Den, Jac, Min, NE
1997 5 Det, KC, Mia, NYG, TB
1998 5 Ari, Atl, Buf, Dal, NYJ
1999 7 Det, Ind, Sea, StL, TB, Ten, Was
2000 6 Bal, Den, NO, NYG, Oak, Phi
2001 6 Chi, GB, NE, NYJ, Pit, SF
2002 5 Atl, Cle, Ind, NYG, Ten
2003 8 Bal, Car, Dal, Den, KC, NE, Sea, StL
2004 5 Atl, Min, NYJ, Pit, SD
2005 7 Car, Chi, Cin, Jac, NYG, TB, Was
2006 7 Bal, Dal, KC, NO, NYJ, Phi, SD
2007 6 GB, Jac, Pit, TB, Ten, Was
2008 7 Atl, Ari, Bal, Car, Mia, Min, Phi
2009 6 Cin, Dal, GB, NE, NO, NYJ
2010 5 Atl, Chi, KC, Pit, Sea
2011 6 Cin, Den, Det, Hou, NYG, SF
2012 4 Ind, Min, Sea, Was
2013 5 Car, KC, NO, Phi, SD
2014 5 Ari, Bal, Dal, Det, Pit
2015 4 Hou, KC, Min, Was
2016 6 Atl, Dal, Det, Mia, NYG, Oak
2017 8 Buf, Car, Jac, LAR, Min, NO, Phi, Ten