Let’s be honest right up front. Projecting how an NFL team will perform on the upcoming season is an exercise in extreme speculation. Sure, there are things that can be indicators, but we never really know until the games begin. So I want to take some time to look at the problems faced in trying to gaze into a very cloudy crystal ball, and how they might inform your perusal of such things.
Over reliance on past performance
That past performance, as you may have heard, is no guarantee of future results. Yet a great deal of what we consume is basically taking what teams and players did last year, and assuming they are going to be much the same this fall. Most lists of teams that will make the playoffs and contend for the Super Bowl are filled with the ones that made the postseason after 2018, but it is a well-documented trend that about half the franchises playing next January will be ones that faltered the previous season. Those so-called “windows” are very short in the NFL, outside of teams that play their home games in the greater Boston area.
The biggest problem is to accurately assess the effects of changes made during the offseason. Players depart and arrive in free agency, some stalwarts retire, the draft brings new faces to the picture, and coaching staffs undergo similar churn. The actual impact of that is, of course, extremely difficult to gauge, especially prior to the preseason, and even the pretend games in August paint a very incomplete picture as the best players spend most of them snuggling in bubble wrap on the sidelines.
And some things just linger. There was a recent article about how the New York Giants could be a team to make the playoffs this season after their struggles in 2018. Somehow, the assumption is that they can ride Saquon Barkley, overcome the loss of Odell Beckham Jr., and find a solution at QB between Eli Manning and Daniel Jones. It is hard to figure out how that is at all probable. It is like having a two-time Super Bowl QB matters, even if he got that distinction with a lot of help, and has clearly declined since. We won’t even go into the role running really plays in the NFL, or the questionable choice of Jones as Manning’s successor.
National versus local views and knowledge
Many of the power rankings and such come from writers who cover the entire league. They have a better broad view of the league than local and team beat writers, but also often miss important details.
However, covering a specific team does not always convey a more accurate view. “Homerism” is a real pitfall that exhibits itself. Some local media focus on positives and heavily discount negatives. I don’t want to pick on our most beloved division rivals, the Philadelphia Eagles (odd, my nose just got noticeably longer when I typed that), but Philly-area writers and fans alike constantly pump up Carson Wentz, especially whenever they see the trigger words “Dak Prescott is actually good”. Wentz is talented, but all he has really done is have a very good start in 2017 before injury made a hero out of Nick Foles. His 2018 season was also cut short after a much less impressive beginning for Wentz. Add in that injury history, and there should be more concern than is generally evident among that good-natured and well-mannered lot. That happens a lot throughout the league.
It is wise to always check what the local guys are saying when you see something that seems a bit too negative from a national guy or gal. And vice-versa, if the local media is really pumping up a player or the team.
The eye of the beholder
In recent days, there have been a couple of widely varying views of just where the Cowboys rank in terms of roster strength and depth. Gil Brandt, the respected former Dallas scouting maven, has them among the very best in a recent article, coming in second only to those great guys in Philadelphia. But ESPN, using the database of Pro Football Focus, had them only at number 12, as reported at DMN/Sportsday.
That shows how different observers can vary in their evaluations. Brandt is more old-school, while PFF is deep in the heart of the analytics movement. But PFF’s data is by definition backwards-looking, built off of last season’s stats (see the point I started with).
This also hearkens back to the point before this one. When you are trying to understand all 32 teams, you just cannot absorb all the relevant information, especially more subtle things. That often leads to an over-belief in memes and outdated conceptions. Too much of the analysis is just a packaging and repeating of those things.
This one is really tough for all concerned. You cannot measure the growth of a football player mentally and emotionally. Some make big jumps, while others never seem to get a clue.
The Cowboys have a great example in their quarterback. Prescott had a well-publicized bad stretch from mid-2017 to the arrival of Amari Cooper. But he was far better after that mid-season trade to fix the wide receiver situation. And he has stated that a light came on for him, and he was seeing the defense better and making much faster reads. Now, another factor has come in, as he was notably crisp and effective in OTAs. That is a turnaround from his first three years with the team, when he was an observably bad practice player.
Those are not things you can quantify. But both are indications that this could be his best year ever. Then you add in the steps the team did to upgrade the offense across the board, plus the major factor of Travis Frederick returning at center, and this could be a significantly improved offense. None of that shows up in crunching the numbers from 2018.
Prescott is not the only example of an immeasurable factor. New offensive coordinator Kellen Moore is the great unknown. Whether or not you believe he is up to the task will completely change your outlook for this team. Of course, we won’t know which view is correct for months.
There is a widespread belief that luck plays a bigger part in the NFL than most sports. You simply cannot predict when a ball takes a freaky bounce.
The biggest thing that can change prospects for a team, however, is injury. Cowboys fans know all too well how, say, losing your starting quarterback can torpedo a season. It doesn’t stop there, as we also know how injury and illness can make the offensive line look like a shell of itself. The same is true of almost any position. Football does depend more on having the individual players all do their jobs, and quality depth is hard to build.
Conversely, improved health, as in Frederick’s case, can be a major boost. The Cowboys don’t really know how close to his old self he will be. They also have to worry about players like DeMarcus Lawrence and Byron Jones coming back from offseason surgeries. How those situations go will have a major impact on things, and they are obviously difficult to predict.
Another thing that can disrupt a team’s chances is officiating. The NFL has a problem there, with convoluted rules, too much reliance on replay that gets down to fractions of a second and inches of difference, and inconsistency from crew to crew, as well as how players are treated. Some quarterbacks are apparently considered to be inviolable, while others get openly abused with no flags. Holding calls are a particularly sore subject for Dallas as well. And as we all know, Dez caught it.
So what does it all mean? Well, mostly, just take any and all predictions before the season with a large chunk of salt. And know that even the most informed takes can be thrown off by unforeseen developments or something that was missed or overlooked.
The good news is that things will begin to clear up when camp starts for all teams, and in a month, they will all be ongoing. In the meantime, treat all predictions, projections, and rankings with caution and as a mixture of information and entertainment. Sometimes fun, sometimes upsetting, sometimes accurate and other times not so much. Just enjoy until the real thing gets here.