The Dallas Cowboys are trying to return from a disastrous 2015 season that saw Tony Romo and Dez Bryant both barely see the field, and saw the defense collapse badly. Even with the ominous preseason injury to Tony Romo, they still profile as a turnaround candidate.
I went back over the last decade and looked at every team that went from a 10-loss or more season, to a playoff appearance. Twenty-four total teams over the previous ten years fit that bill, with Washington last year being the latest. Most of them have some things in common. The vast majority (71%, including teams with returning injured starters) had a different primary quarterback. About half (46%) had new coaches.
Of course, bad teams tend to change coaches and quarterbacks with great frequency. The teams that saw big turnarounds did change quarterbacks more frequently than others (71% to 65%), but not significantly so. The non-playoff teams actually changed teams slightly more frequently (51% to 46%) than the turnaround teams.
Here’s a comparison of the number of teams that met each category:
The teams that changed the coach only, but not the quarterback, were the lowest success rate, with only 2 out of 15 reaching the postseason (13%).
Of course, if we look at not just those factors, but control for the quality of the team as judged by their season before losing 10+ games, we see a clearer pattern. While we most often think of breakout teams as coming from nowhere, the average was 7.9 wins the year before their downturn. There are as many cases where a perennial playoff team took a brief step back, as long-suffering franchises shooting forward after a decade of despair.
Among franchises that had multiple 10 loss seasons in a row, quick fixes were not common. Only Miami in 2008 featured both a new head coach (Tony Sparano) and a new quarterback (Chad Pennington). Washington 2012 had a rookie quarterback (Robert Griffin) with a veteran coach. The most common theme was a coach and quarterback entering their 2nd or 3rd year together (Cousins and Gruden last year in Washington, for example).
But over two-thirds of the turnarounds came from teams that did not have consecutive 10-loss seasons. Those are the situations where new coaches and QBs provided the most likely turnaround.
For average teams (7-9 wins in the year before the decline), 6 of the 9 featured a new head coach, and 7 of the 9 a new starting quarterback (a mix of young guys getting first chance to start, and veteran acquisitions like Drew Brees to New Orleans).
For the teams that had collapsed from 10+ wins to 10+ losses, and then rebounded, most had veteran coaches that had experienced success. Most had either new quarterbacks (4), or an old quarterback returning from a lost injury season (3 of the 8 fit this mold). None of them featured veteran franchise QBs, other than those returning from injury.
Dallas fits the mold of those teams with a new QB, due to either a new starter (Prescott) or return of a veteran from injury (Romo). They had 12 wins the previous year, but without Romo, and having to rely on some combination of Brandon Weeden and Matt Cassel (and Dez Bryant out), they struggled.
The offensive line is still a strength. They drafted Ezekiel Elliott. The team that went 1-11 without Romo should be better suited to withstand him. Prescott may be a wildcard, but I’m confident he is a better option than last year.
The rest of the top five teams who lost double-digit games, with a chance to take a leap into the playoffs:
#2 Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Jameis Winston’s 2nd year, and Dirk Koetter was on staff as offensive coordinator so this is more of a continuity situation.
#3 Baltimore Ravens: Tough division, but this is a veteran coach situation, and a QB who is coming off injury. The Ravens were 3-7 in close games when Flacco got hurt last year.
#4 New York Giants: the Giants have the same advantage as Dallas. The division isn’t particularly stacked, as all four teams were in contention with .500 or worse records entering last December. It was time for a change with Coughlin, and Ben McAdoo got a pretty good season out of Eli. Can the defense get back to where it needs to be?
#5 Jacksonville Jaguars: Last year felt like a lost opportunity for Gus Bradley, as the team tanked late with a chance to catch Houston and Indianapolis. It’s make-or-break, and the Jaguars were a multiple year rebuilding project when he took over. If it doesn’t happen this year, not sure it’s happening with this group.