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What can you expect from an 8-8 team with a new head coach the following year?

Fasten your seatbelts, there might be a bumpy ride ahead for the Dallas Cowboys.

Dallas Cowboys Introduce Head Coach Mike McCarthy Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

You may not remember this specific piece of Cowboys trivia, but the last time the Cowboys changed their head coach after an 8-8 season, they ended up with a 5-11 record the next year.

Chan Gailey (trivia alert: Gailey was the only Cowboys coach to make the playoffs every season with his team) coached the Cowboys to 10-6 and 8-8 records in 1998 and 1999 and was then replaced by Dave Campo, who promptly took the Cowboys to 5-11 in 2000. Campo, of course, followed up that season with two more 5-11 seasons before he, too, was fired.

Between the introduction of the salary cap in 1994 (to use a random but relevant data point in league history) and 2019, 16 teams fired/exchanged their head coach after an 8-8 season, and there’s some sobering stuff to be gleaned from looking at the historical record of those coaching changes.

  • Only four of the 16 teams (25%) improved on their record the following year.
  • Three teams (19%) were stuck with a Garrett-like 8-8 record the following year.
  • Nine teams (56%) finished the following season with a worse record, despite the coaching change. Yikes!

Here’s the full data set.

Wins in season after going 8-8 and changing the head coach, 1994-2019
Wins 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
No. of teams 2 2 3 -- 2 3 3 1

We’ve talked a lot about the pros and cons of the McCarthy hire, and most Cowboys fans are at least moderately excited about the coaching staff McCarthy has already assembled in Dallas. But that historical record of coaching changes on 8-8 teams does not bode well for the 2020 Cowboys, especially given how prone this front office is to thinking that the changes they made one season will automatically elevate the franchise to contenders the next season.

Think about that. When was the last time we entered a season and the message from the Cowboys was that this season was going to be a transition year, or that making the playoffs was going to be a real challenge, or that the new defensive or offensive or scheme might take a while to implement? My guess is: not often, if ever.

And sure, part of it is about driving ticket sales and drumming up excitement about the team, but you can’t help but wonder if that overly optimistic take on the next year is somehow impacting the team’s perspective on the level of change needed to actually be successful the next year.

In Dallas, you may think that changing out most of the coaching staff should be enough to (again) be a Super Bowl contender next year.

  • You may also think that that an offense that averaged just 17 points in its eight losses last year and couldn’t get anything going when it counted just needs to establish the run a little more and everything will fall into place.
  • Or that a defense that ranked 20th in defensive passer rating (in a league that’s all about the pass) and allowed the eighth-highest completion rate (in a league that’s all about the pass) can allow its best corner to just walk away in free agency (in a league that’s all about the pass).
  • That a defensive line that had a semi-funny nickname but had trouble getting to the QB all season (ranked only 19th in sacks in a league that’s all about the pass) just needs to invest its highest draft pick in a run-stuffing defensive tackle or a hard-hitting, in-the-box safety (in a league that’s all about the pass) and you’re a lock for the next NFC Championship game.

The Cowboys are hoping that the personnel change on the coaching side can provide new impulses to an organization or a unit that may have gone stale. And they may be right. But I bet you that’s what all 16 of the teams mentioned above thought too, and it didn’t exactly work out too well for them.

The Cowboys can beat the odds, but they can’t just hope that shaking up the coaching staff will automatically improve things. They need to attack the entire offseason with the sense of urgency that drove them put an end to the Garrett era in Dallas.

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. 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.

The Cowboys have the fifth-highest cap space in the league, and while they may still have to sign some of their own guys to big contracts, the may also want to use that money to alter the make-up of the team; I am still shocked that it took a journeyman acquired in a mid-season trade to raise a stink in the locker room about the team’s inability or unwillingness to respond to adversity, something the established vets didn’t do.

When you fire the head coach, it’s often because the entire organization failed, and not just the one guy at the top of the coaching organization chart. When you’re looking to fix that organization, you’re going to have to look at more than just the coaching. Because if you do, history suggests you’ll quickly find yourself back in the position you wanted to get out of in the first place.

Year Team W/L New coach Previous Coach W/L Prev. Season Change in W/L
2007 Pittsburgh Steelers 10-6 Tomlin Cowher 8-8 2
2000 Green Bay Packers 9-7 Sherman Rhodes 8-8 1
2000 New York Jets 9-7 Groh Parcells 8-8 1
1999 Seattle Seahawks 9-7 Holmgren Erickson 8-8 1
2011 Oakland Raiders 8-8 Jackson Cable 8-8 0
2009 Denver Broncos 8-8 McDaniels Shanahan 8-8 0
2001 Washington Redskins 8-8 Schottenheimer Turner 8-8 0
2002 Washington Redskins 7-9 Spurrier Schottenheimer 8-8 -1
1997 Cincinnati Bengals 7-9 Coslet Shula 8-8 -1
2015 San Francisco 49ers 5-11 Tomsula Harbaugh 8-8 -3
2000 Dallas Cowboys 5-11 Campo Gailey 8-8 -3
2000 New England Patriots 5-11 Belichick Carroll 8-8 -3
2012 Oakland Raiders 4-12 Allen Jackson 8-8 -4
1997 San Diego Chargers 4-12 Gilbride Ross 8-8 -4
2018 Arizona Cardinals 3-13 Wilks Arians 8-8 -5
2001 Buffalo Bills 3-13 Williams Phillips 8-8 -5

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