Throughout this offseason I have been doing my best to shine the light of reality on overly optimistic expectations developing within the fanbase for some of the Commanders’ returning players. In the last article of the series, I stepped a little beyond the formula to have a look at the chances that Ron Rivera breaks his five-season streak without a winning season.
My intention has not been to cast shade on Washington’s players, but rather to pump the brakes a little on hype that is not supported by performance on the field. In fact, when I examined comparable players to QB Sam Howell, I discovered that the performance of previous late-round quarterbacks getting the start in their first or second season provided a more optimistic outlook than I had expected.
Now that I have had a look at the Commanders’ players and coaches, it is time to shine the spotlight of skepticism further afield. When the topic is unreasonably optimistic expectations not supported by past performance, there is one NFL team that immediately comes to mind. That is, of course, Washington’s division rival, the Dallas Cowboys.
Through two periods, from 1966 through 1985 and then from 1991 through 1996, the Dallas Cowboys were among the best teams in the NFL. Dallas provided a formidable rival for the Redskins through the early years of the first Joe Gibbs era. Then they fell into a slump starting in 1986, under Harvey Bright’s ownership.
In 1989, Jerry Jones purchased the club, hired head coach Jimmy Johnson to succeed retired legend Tom Landry, and drafted QB Troy Aikman. Jones was a hands-on owner who acted as the team’s general manager. The team bottomed out that seasons with a 1-15 record. Within three seasons under new ownership, the Cowboys had won their third Super Bowl in franchise history. Jerry’s ‘Boys won three Super Bowls in the four seasons from 1992 through 1995.
Then something happened. Since the 1995 Super Bowl season, the Dallas Cowboys have not won another divisional round playoff game. From 1996 through 2022, the once-great Cowboys have been a fairly mediocre team. In the past 26 years, they have had six seasons with more than 10 regular season wins and eight seasons with six or fewer wins. In that span, they have won four Wild Card playoff games, but have never managed to progress beyond the divisional playoff round.
The Cowboys’ lack of postseason success since 1995 can’t be chalked up to a shortage of all-star talent on the roster. Unlike our hapless franchise, the Cowboys have enjoyed stability at quarterback for most of the past 26 years, with Troy Aikman (HOF, 6x PB), Tony Romo (4x PB, AP2) and Dak Prescott (AP ORoY, 2x PB) under center for a total of 19 seasons.
Elsewhere on the roster, they have had five Hall of Famers (OL Larry Allen, LB DeMarcus Ware, RB Emmitt Smith, CB Deion Sanders, WR Terrell Owens), nine multiple-time first-team All-Pros (Zack Martin x6, Allen x6, Sanders x6, Ware x4, Smith x4, Darren Woodson x3, Micah Parsons x2, Tyron Smith x2, Jason Witten x2), and a host of other All-Pros, Pro Bowlers and other award winners.
Yet, despite all that talent, the self-appointed America’s Team has not been able to get it done in the playoffs since Tom Brady’s rookie season… in college.
Of course, you wouldn’t know it from reading the national media. No matter how many times Jerry’s boys disappoint, more often than not the national sports media have them favored to win the NFC East and make some noise in the playoffs (e.g. Sporting News 2022, ESPN 2020, CBS 2018, Sports Illustrated 2017, Forbes 2015). It’s as if the national media’s view of the Cowboys is caught in a time warp to the early 1990’s.
They are at it again in 2023. ESPN rates the Cowboys as the sixth most likely team to win the Super Bowl. Pro Football Focus , Touchdown Wire, and Sharp Football Analysis all rank them seventh in their power rankings.
Will the Cowboys finally break the 26 year divisional playoff win drought in 2023? It seems that the real issue that Dallas has struggled with since winning their last Super Bowl has been translating the talent on their roster into postseason wins. In my examination of Rivera’s draft success rate a few months ago, I briefly touched on the importance of elite talent to playoff success. But perhaps having a talented roster isn’t always enough. To find the answers we are seeking, I thought it might be instructive to examine the relationship between elite talent and playoff success in greater detail.
Does Elite Talent Really Win Championships, All the Time?
To get to the bottom of this issue, I examined the correlation of elite talent on NFL rosters to playoff wins, to see where Dallas sits relative to the rest of the league. Since we are on the cusp of a new era of football in Washington, I decided to set the measurement frame to the Snyder Era. That is only slightly shorter than the duration of the Cowboys’ playoff drought. Think of it as giving the ‘boys three years to make the transition from their previous Super Bowl era.
Playoff Success. For each NFL team, I measured Playoff Success by scoring their playoff finish in each season from 1999 to 2022, then summing the scores across all 24 seasons. Scores were based on the highest level playoff game that a team won in a season, starting at 1 for a Wild Card win and doubling at each successive playoff round. Therefore, a team that won a Wild Card game and lost in the Divisional round scored 1 point. A team that was knocked out at the Championship round scored 2 points. The Super Bowl loser scored 4 points and the Super Bowl winner scored 8. No points were awarded to teams that made the playoffs but failed to win a game.
The sum of scores across all 24 seasons of the Snyder era was used as a team’s Playoff Success score.
Elite Talent. The metric I chose to quantify elite talent was number of All-Pro team members on the roster in each season, summed across the same 24 seasons. I used the three main All-Pro teams, which are neatly summarized each year on Wikipedia (e.g. 1999). These are the Associated Press (AP), Pro Football Writers Association (PFWA) and The Sporting News (SN). Each All-Pro team is voted on by a different panel of football experts which may include writers and broadcasters (AP, PFWA) or NFL players and executives (SN). The AP nominates a first and second team, both of which were included in this analysis. The three All-Pro teams have essentially equal standing, and none has official status with the NFL.
I chose to use All-Pro nomination because it is a truly elite distinction and it is highly reliable. In contrast to Pro Bowl nomination, which is voted on by coaches, players and fans, fewer players are nominated to All-Pro team each year and there is usually less controversy, year to year, about which players were selected and excluded. There also is a remarkably high level of consistency between the All-Pro teams nominated by the three different panels, but still enough variation to get the numbers up.
Each player was counted to a team’s total in every season that he made the All-Pro team, by design. The intention here is to measure how much talent there is on each team’s roster in each season when playoff success is measured. For that purpose, players who make the All-Pro team in multiple seasons should be counted more than those that make it in a single season. Lastly, I considered weighting QBs more than other players, since having an All-Pro QB has a disproportionate effect on playoff success. But I decided against doing so.
The results of this analysis are neatly summarized in a single figure, which plots Playoff Success against total number of All-Pro player-seasons for each NFL team from 1999 through 2022.
There is a lot to see here, so let me walk you through it. The graph is divided into four quadrants by the two thick grid lines.
Number of All-Pro Players
The vertical grid line is plotted on the league average number of All-Pros per team (46). Teams to the right of the grid line had higher than average numbers of All-Pros and teams to the left had lower than average numbers. The team with the highest number of All-Pro player-seasons was the Baltimore Ravens at 87 (Average: 3.6 All-Pros/season). They are followed by the Kansas City Chiefs in second place at 77 (3.2 All-Pros/season) and the New England Patriots at 74 (3.1 All-Pros/season). The team with the fewest All-Pros in the Snyder era was our own Washington Redskins/Football Team/Commanders, with only 18 (0.75 All-Pros/season).
The Dallas Cowboys ranked a respectable fourth in the league, making them the first team below the elite group, with 61 All-Pro players (2.5 All-Pros/season).
The horizontal grid line demarcates the average Playoff Success score (14.1 points). The closest team to average was the Denver Broncos, at 15 points, with one Super Bowl win (8 pts), one Conference Championship (4 pts), a Divisional Playoff win (2 pts) and a Wild Card win (1 pt). The New England Patriots were the outlier, at 69 points. The leading team in the trailing pack was the Pittsburgh Steelers with 28 points, less than half the Patriots’ total. The Detroit Lions were in last place with 0 points. Cleveland finished second last with 1 point, and Dan Snyder’s team was tied with the Miami Dolphins for third place with 2 points from two Wild Card wins.
The Dallas Cowboys were in a three-way tie for fifth lowest Playoff Success with the Buffalo Bills and Houston Texans. Each of the fifth-last place finishers had only 4 points. Dallas and Houston reached the total by winning four Wild Card games, while Buffalo won a Divisional Round playoff and two Wild Cards. Houston only entered the league in 2002, and therefore had three fewer years to win playoff games. As a result, they have higher points per season (0.19) than Dallas and Buffalo (0.17). I think the tiebreakers put Buffalo ahead, by virtue of going further in the playoffs, followed by Houston with more playoff wins per season, leaving Dallas in third place within the group.
Correlation Between Number of All-Pro Players and Playoff Success
There was a strong correlation between Number of All-Pro Players and Playoff Success. The scatter of points from the 32 NFL teams is clearly clustered along the diagonal trend line (blue dotted line). This means that there is a strong tendency for teams with more All-Pros on the roster to have more Playoff Success than teams with fewer All-Pro players. For stats afficionados, the correlation coefficient was 0.67. Even without weighting QBs more heavily, the number of All-Pro player-seasons explains 45% of the variance in Playoff Success. For non-statistically-minded, that’s a whopping strong correlation for this kind of dataset.
The four quadrants of the graph divide the league up into four sets of teams. Teams in the upper right quadrant had higher than average numbers of All-Pro players and enjoyed better than average playoff success. These are the Good Teams, and one great team, the Patriots.
Teams in the upper left quadrant achieved greater than average Playoff Success with lower than average numbers of All-Pro players. They are the NFL’s Over Achievers. The biggest Over Achiever of the group is Washington’s divisional rival, the New York Giants.
The lower left quadrant is not labelled due to lack of space, and also to avoid embarrassment. These are the teams with below average numbers of All-Pro players and below average Playoff Success. They are the Bad Teams of the Snyder era. While Washington is at the lower right end of the scatter, if it gives you any solace, at least they are above Cleveland and Detroit on the vertical axis, which is most important.
Last of all, is the lower right quadrant, where we find teams with above average Numbers of All-Pros and below average Playoff Success. These are the Under Achievers. Despite consistently having elite talent on their rosters, for whatever reason, these teams just can’t seem to get it done when they get into the playoffs.
The team located the furthest to the lower right of the Under Achieving group is none other than the Dallas Cowboys. This means they own the distinction of being the Biggest Under Achiever of the NFL throughout the past 24 years.
Now, statistics afficionados, might point out that the true measure of over and under-achievement is how far a team’s data point sits above or below the trend line, rather than what quadrant they sit in. The vertical distance from the trend line measures how much the team’s Playoff Success exceeds or falls below that predicted by the linear relationship between Number of All-Pros and Playoff Success.
By that, more statistically valid measure, the greatest Over Achiever is actually the New England Patriots. Their amazing playoff success was much greater than would be predicted from the Number of All-Pros on their roster. The team furthest below the trend line remains the Dallas Cowboys. As an aside, Washington fans might take further solace in the fact that their team sits slightly above the trend line.
We could quibble about which way is best to look at the data. While vertical distance to the trend line is technically the best measure of over and under-achievement, what we really want to understand is whether a team is likely to translate its roster talent into postseason wins. While the Kansas City Chiefs and Baltimore Ravens may not have achieved playoff wins at the rate one would predict from their roster talent levels, they have still managed to rank near the top of league in playoff wins, and that is most likely related to their surplus of roster talent. For that reason, there is value in the quadrant approach.
For purposes of this analysis, it doesn’t matter. No matter how you look at it, the Dallas Cowboys are the NFL’s biggest Under Achiever throughout the past 24 seasons. They have distinguished themselves from the other 31 teams by bucking the trend for elite talent to translate into playoff wins. More than any other NFL team, they have consistently done worse in the playoffs than you would expect based on the talent on their roster.
The other two teams in the Under Achiever’s corner are the Minnesota Vikings and the LA Chargers. While the Chargers have not underachieved quite to the same extent as Dallas, they also deserve special mention. You may notice that most of the teams with the highest playoff success have had runs with elite quarterbacks. The Chargers have had a 21-year run with three elite quarterbacks (Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Justin Herbert), in addition to good numbers of elite players at other positions, yet have only managed to win one divisional round playoff and three Wild Card games.
Aside from a seven-year run with the underrated Daunte Culpepper, the Vikings have struggled with stability at the QB position and have largely made do with other teams’ cast-offs, which I have previously argued is the wrong way to try to find a franchise QB.
Will Dallas Win a Divisional Playoff Game in 2023?
Throughout the Offseason Skeptic series, I have couched the findings of my statistical analyses in qualified terms. The previous articles have used historical data from comparable players or coaches to provide benchmarks against which we can estimate the likelihood that one of the Commanders will achieve a breakout of one sort or another in 2023.
The results of the present analysis are so compelling that I am prepared to state the conclusion in absolute terms:
No way in Hell do the Dallas Cowboys break their 27-year divisional round playoff drought in 2023.
An analysis of data from the past 24 NFL seasons revealed a strong correlation between the number of elite players on NFL rosters and playoff success. Three underachieving squads have run counter to that trend by achieving fewer playoff wins than should be expected based on the talent on their rosters. Among these teams, the Dallas Cowboys have stand out as the biggest Under Achievers in the NFL.
These results can finally explain a long-standing mystery within the Commanders’ fanbase. Why is it that, no matter how consistently the Cowboys disappoint, that national media continue to overrate their chances the following season?
Where the national media get it wrong is by projecting next season’s results based on the talent on the roster. My results show that, more than any other team, the Dallas Cowboys play below their talent level when they get to the postseason. Therefore, season projections based on their roster talent, alone, should be expected to overestimate their prospects for the coming season.
Acknowledgement: This article was inspired by Hogs Haven commenter Sumatter who asked if there was any plan for the Offseason Skeptic to examine any division rivals. I hadn’t thought of it to that point, but as soon as it was suggested the choice became obvious. As usual, this article benefited from expert editing by James Dorsett.
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