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What can you expect from a 6-10 NFL team the following year?

If the last 30 NFL seasons are any indication, anything is possible for a team that went 6-10 the previous season. Well, almost anything.

Dallas Cowboys v New York Giants Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

In 2019, the Cowboys finished 8-8 and fired their head coach, only to end up at 6-10 in the 2020 season. Prior to that, 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 coached the Cowboys to an 8-8 record in 1999 and was then replaced by Dave Campo, who promptly took the Cowboys to 5-11 in 2000.

A remarkable synchronicity of events, even if it is probably meaningless.

But outside of that piece of Cowboys trivia, what does the historical record tell us about the performance of 6-10 teams the following season? Between 1990 (when the league moved to a 12-team playoff format) and 2019, 87 teams finished with a 6-10 record. Here’s a topline view of how they followed up that 6-10 season

  • 63 of the 87 teams (63%) improved on their record the following year.
  • Seven teams (8%) repeated their 6-10 record from the previous year.
  • 25 teams (29%) finished the following season with an even worse record.
  • Six teams (7%) followed up their 6-10 effort with a season of such historical ineptitude that it earned them the No. 1 overall pick in the following year’s draft ( ‘92 Patriots, ‘95 Jets, ‘02 Bengals, ‘07 Dolphins, ‘19 Bengals, ‘20 Jaguars).
  • 26 teams (30%) made the playoffs the season after finishing 6-10.
  • One team (‘96 Patriots) made the Super Bowl but lost.

Here’s the full data set.

Wins in season after going 6-10
Wins 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15
No. of teams 2 3 7 6 7 7 9 11 9 10 8 2 2 -- 1

The NFL is a closed system in which teams tend toward a .500 record, and an 8-8 record is mathematically the most likely outcome. In this system, every win above or below eight wins is increasingly less likely, and the data above bears that out, even if the data doesn’t follow a strict normal distribution curve. Look closely at the numbers and you’ll see that the data skews towards a losing record (47% of the teams have a losing record, 40% have a winning record) probably owing to the fact that 6-10 teams suck more often than not.

But we can take this analysis one step further and look at the historical record of teams with a similar trajectory to the Cowboys and look at what happened to teams that followed up an 8-8 season with a 6-10 season.

Since 1990, seven teams have had that specific combination of records in consecutive years, and here’s an overview of how they fared in Year 3:

Team Period Year 1 Year 2 Year 3 Playoffs
49ers 2009-2011 8-8 6-10 13-3 Conf. Round
Giants 1991-1993 8-8 6-10 11-5 Div. Round
Dolphins 2014-2016 8-8 6-10 10-6 WC Round
Titans 2009-2011 8-8 6-10 9-7 - -
Bills 2002-2004 8-8 6-10 9-7 - -
Jets 2011-2013 8-8 6-10 8-8 - -
Rams 2004-2006 8-8 6-10 4-12 - -

As you can see, like in the previous data set, the data here suggests that almost anything possible for a team that went 8-8 and 6-10 in consecutive seasons. Of the seven teams listed here,

  • Three made the playoffs.
  • Five (including the playoff teams) had a winning record.
  • One got stuck in 8-8 Garrettland.
  • One had a losing record.

So what does this mean for the Cowboys?

It means that anything can happen in 2021, both good and bad. 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.

Simply saying something like “the Cowboys will be bad this year because they were bad last year” is nothing more than an admission of analytical incompetence and intellectual laziness. In the parity-driven NFL, last season doesn’t matter. The 2021 Cowboys record will be determined by what they are doing starting today, not by what they did last year.

But will they do enough, and enough of the right things, to get them back into contention? Because anything is possible for a team that went 6-10 the previous season.

Well, almost anything.