Barnwell: NFL teams most likely to improve in 2020 - Why the Cowboys, Lions should win more games

Iamtdg

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  • Bill Barnwell ESPN Staff Writer

Each year around this time, I try to figure out what's going to happen in the upcoming NFL season. Doing that in August isn't exactly an exclusive hobby of mine, but I try to focus on using metrics and measures that have historically been good predictors of future team performance. What happened last year matters, but not always in the way you might think.

In recent years, my predictions have been pretty accurate. I've split this column into winners and losers over the past three years, and over that time frame, I've identified 16 teams that were likely to improve the following year. Twelve of them have done so, with the average team's record leaping by 3.3 wins. Ten of the 16 went over their preseason over/under win total as listed on Pro Football Reference. When we include the teams we've predicted to decline, this column has gone 26-6 in predicting win/loss direction and 22-10 versus over/unders over the past three seasons.

Three of the five candidates we selected to improve in 2019 did so. The New York Jets and Tampa Bay Buccaneers each added two wins to their ledger. The New York Giants took a step backward as they rebuilt around rookie quarterback Daniel Jones, while the Carolina Panthers never had a healthy Cam Newton and fell apart after a hot start. Losing your starting quarterback, as the Panthers did, is more meaningful than any predictor we can invent.

The big success story was the San Francisco 49ers, whom we pegged as a team that could "make an unlikely trip to the playoffs." By the end of the year, things hardly seemed unlikely; the Niners won the NFC West, were the top seed in the NFC and made it all the way to Super Bowl LIV. Over the past three years, this list has included a pair of unlikely Super Bowl participants out of the NFC in the 2019 49ers and the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles, who jumped from 7-9 to 13-3.

Let's get to the four teams most likely to improve in 2020 before hitting the four teams most likely to decline Tuesday. Given the uncertainty surrounding the upcoming season, everything included here makes the (unrealistic) assumption that this will be a normal campaign. There's no way to project a team's strength of schedule when we don't know whether they'll even complete a full season. If we get something resembling a normal season, these are the teams most likely to take a step forward in 2020:
Jump to a team:
DAL | LAC | CIN | DET

Dallas Cowboys (8-8)

2019 point differential: plus-113
Pythagorean expectation: 10.7 wins
Record in games decided by seven points or fewer: 0-5
FPI projected strength of schedule: 12th easiest

The Cowboys were on the other side of this list last year as one of the teams I expected to decline. They did, falling from 10-6 to 8-8, but it wasn't because their performance declined. On a snap-by-snap basis, they were better than they were in 2018. They outscored opponents by less than a point per game in 2018, with that mark jumping to more than a full touchdown per game last season. They improved from 21st in DVOA in 2018 to sixth in 2019. They finished the season seventh in ESPN's Football Power Index, just ahead of the two teams that lost in the conference championship games.

What changed is simple. In games that weren't decided by seven points or fewer, the 2018 Cowboys were 2-4. The 2019 Cowboys were 8-3. In the close games that were decided by seven points or fewer, though, they fell from 8-2 in 2018 to 0-5 last season. The same regression to or past the mean helped sink them in 2015 and 2017, and while I don't want to suggest there's a Bret Saberhagen thing happening here, it popped up again in 2019 and cost Jason Garrett his head-coaching job.

Ezekiel Elliott and the Cowboys have a loaded offense and should make a run at the NFC East title. Larry W. Smith/EPA
More than anything, the Cowboys were just fantastic when they needed to be in the final minutes of games in 2018. They kicked a field goal on the final play to win two games and beat the Giants with a touchdown and a two-point conversion with 1:12 to go in Week 17. They beat the Eagles with a late score and two defensive stops inside the final four minutes in Week 10 and then topped Philly in overtime with an Amari Cooper touchdown in Week 14.

Last year, with a better offense and virtually the same core of talent, the late-game heroics didn't show up. Dallas laid an egg against the Jets, and after scoring two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to get it to 24-22 with 47 seconds left, it failed on the 2-pointer to push the game to overtime. Down 28-24 against the Vikings, Dak Prescott went 6-of-7 for 79 yards to push the Cowboys into the red zone with 1:57 to go. Facing second-and-2 from the 11-yard line, they handed the ball to Ezekiel Elliott two times and saw their star back lose a total of 3 yards. Prescott threw an incompletion on fourth down and then an interception on a Hail Mary to end the game.

The Cowboys were plus-6 in one-score games in 2018 and minus-5 in those same games in 2019. That's an 11-game swing over the course of two seasons. Since 1989, just five other teams have dealt with an 11-win swing or more in close games, one of which will be appearing later in this column. To get something resembling a significant sample, we have to expand a bit and consider the teams that had a negative swing of eight games or more. When teams typically undergo that sort of swing from year to year, what happens in the third season?

They almost always improve. Of the 27 teams that fell off by eight or more wins in close games, 23 improved the following season, while one stayed at their prior record and only three declined. Three of the four teams that didn't improve either replaced their quarterback by choice or via injury, including last year's Panthers, who got only two injury-hampered games from Cam Newton. The 27 teams improved by an average of 2.7 wins the following year and won just over 46% of their close games. Dallas should be better in those one-score games in 2020.

To put it another way, let's also take the Cowboys' point differential of plus-113 in 2019 and expand it out to consider teams that outscored their opponents by a total of 100 to 125 points over a full season. Last year, the only other two teams in that group were the 13-3 Saints and the 10-6 Vikings, each of whom made the playoffs and posted a better record than last year's Cowboys.

Over the past 30 years, 52 other teams have landed in this 25-point bucket. They won an average of 11.2 games. Just one other team -- the 1989 Bengals -- failed to post a winning record. They also improved the following year (although it was by only one game).

With better luck, Dallas would project as one of the best teams in football, given that it was one of those teams a year ago. If anything, it wouldn't shock me if the Cowboys actually were a little worse on a play-by-play basis and still improved their record anyway. They ranked second in offensive DVOA in a season in which they were the second-healthiest team in the league by adjusted games lost. They will have to replace retired center Travis Frederick, although they likely upgraded in the slot by swapping out Randall Cobb for first-round pick CeeDee Lamb.

This sounds like a simple concept, and I'm sure longtime readers aren't hearing anything new when I say this, but the simple reality of the NFL is that the easiest way to find which teams are likely to improve or decline the following season is to look at their record in close games. There will always be exceptions, but the vast majority of the time you'll find that teams that either win or lose their one-score games at a drastic rate one season don't repeat that feat the following year. It was true for the 2019 Cowboys. I expect it will also be true for the 2020 Cowboys.

__

You can read the rest of the story at Are the Cowboys contenders? Barnwell predicts NFL teams most likely to improve.
 

Simpleton

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Over the past 30 years, 52 other teams have landed in this 25-point bucket. They won an average of 11.2 games. Just one other team -- the 1989 Bengals -- failed to post a winning record. They also improved the following year (although it was by only one game).

With better luck, Dallas would project as one of the best teams in football, given that it was one of those teams a year ago.
:lol

You could say "with better luck" we project as one of the best teams in the league, or more accurately, with the albatross HC gone we project as one of the best teams in the league.

I think it'll take about a month before we see the team operating at peak efficiency though given the crazy offseason.
 

1bigfan13

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:lol

You could say "with better luck" we project as one of the best teams in the league, or more accurately, with the albatross HC gone we project as one of the best teams in the league.

I think it'll take about a month before we see the team operating at peak efficiency though given the crazy offseason.

Jason Garrett had the market cornered when it came to those negative "first team in 30 years to <<BLANK>>" situations.
 

Stasheroo

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Jason Garrett had the market cornered when it came to those negative "first team in 30 years to <<BLANK>>" situations.
Yep.

That's his legacy in Dallas.

That, and wasting some great players' careers with his bumbling mistakes.
 

ravidubey

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I think too much of this analysis is laid upon statistics garnered against really cream puff competition.

Going 0-5 in games decided by 7 points or fewer is hugely telling... not dumb luck!

But yeah, I definitely think we improve.

1) Young talent reaching/playing in the primes of their careers: Prescott, Elliott, Cooper, Gallup, Martin, Collins, Jaylon Smith, Vander Esch, Awuzie, Lewis, and Jarwin

2) A great, great draft bringing what looks to be quality depth across a range of positions.

3) Finally some defensive tackles worth a shit. Nothing makes a defense stout like talent and the ability to anchor at these two positions. A stout defense at least slows the other team down if not helps stop them entirely.

4) Much better coaching in place. Wow, such a contrast from the shit-show we've had to live through since Bill Parcells.

Weaknesses/Reasons we likely don't go all the way:

1) Pass Rush. WTF? This is not a hole so much as it is a yawning chasm.

2) Blah safeties.

3) Lots of changes for such a limited offseason.

4) Starting DT's are not young.
 

Stasheroo

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I think too much of this analysis is laid upon statistics garnered against really cream puff competition.

Going 0-5 in games decided by 7 points or fewer is hugely telling... not dumb luck!

But yeah, I definitely think we improve.

1) Young talent reaching/playing in the primes of their careers: Prescott, Elliott, Cooper, Gallup, Martin, Collins, Jaylon Smith, Vander Esch, Awuzie, Lewis, and Jarwin

2) A great, great draft bringing what looks to be quality depth across a range of positions.

3) Finally some defensive tackles worth a shit. Nothing makes a defense stout like talent and the ability to anchor at these two positions. A stout defense at least slows the other team down if not helps stop them entirely.

4) Much better coaching in place. Wow, such a contrast from the shit-show we've had to live through since Bill Parcells.

Weaknesses/Reasons we likely don't go all the way:

1) Pass Rush. WTF? This is not a hole so much as it is a yawning chasm.

2) Blah safeties.

3) Lots of changes for such a limited offseason.

4) Starting DT's are not young.
I definitely agree with the worry about pass rush - specifically that RDE position. They've fucked up that position since they cut Ware. Every decision they've made there has been the wrong one.
 

Chocolate Lab

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You guys don't like D-Law and Smith as pass rushers? I thought this board loved D-Law.
 

1bigfan13

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You guys don't like D-Law and Smith as pass rushers? I thought this board loved D-Law.
I like D-Law but I don't trust Smith because he's been out of football too long and he didn't make much of an impact the last few seasons he did play.
 

Cowboysrock55

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I definitely agree with the worry about pass rush - specifically that RDE position. They've fucked up that position since they cut Ware. Every decision they've made there has been the wrong one.
Quinn wasn't wrong. Good job trading low and selling for a high comp pick.
 

ravidubey

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The pass rush is counting on Lawrence to have a bounce back year and for a productive partner to emerge on the other side. Not high odds, right?

One big advantage we do have over prior years is a chance at having interior pressure to set up the outside pressure.
 

DontCryWolfe

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The pass rush is counting on Lawrence to have a bounce back year and for a productive partner to emerge on the other side. Not high odds, right?

One big advantage we do have over prior years is a chance at having interior pressure to set up the outside pressure.
The coaching and scheme change will be our saving grace at that position. It’s almost hard to imagine Lawrence having a real bounce back year after losing an 11.5 sack counterpart, although it’s not like he’s had Deacon Jones there on the other side for his better seasons. What should help the most is the interior upgrades. Though RDE remains a question mark, the overall competency of that unit should do him favors.
 

Simpleton

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We had a top 10 type defense in 2018 with Lawrence as our only truly elite DL/pass-rusher. Gregory came in on nickel/dime and gave us 6 sacks, Crawford cobbled together 5.5 flipping between DE in base packages and moving inside in nickel/dime and the rest of our sacks kind of came from random guys like Jaylon (4) and Anthony Brown (2).

An edge rusher opposite Lawrence is certainly a massive question mark, and one that should've been fixed by adding someone like Griffen or Clowney. Smith might work out and give us a handful of sacks like Gregory in 2018, or perhaps even more, but it's probably a pure coin flip whether or not he keeps his shit together and makes it through the year.

The big upgrade of course is on the interior with McCoy/Poe/Gallimore compared to Collins/Woods/Daniel Ross, and we still have Woods, so if you're comparing 2018 to 2020 we basically swapped out Collins/JAG Ross for McCoy/Poe/Gallimore.

If Smith can just give us 5-7 sacks like Gregory did in 2018 our DL could be significantly better with the interior upgraded. Of course he might give us nothing and if something happens to Lawrence we really might be up shit's creek.

The good thing is that the defense should be able to mostly lean on the offense, which they weren't really able to in 2018, and it shouldn't take dominant defensive performances for us to win consistently given that our offense should be putting up 27-30+ most weeks.
 
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