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Cowboys in prime position to improve in standings in 2020

After a season in which the Dallas Cowboys failed to win many close games, trends suggest a reversal of fortune could pave a path to the playoffs.
Credit: AP
Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) celebrates after making a touchdown throw against the Washington Redskins during the second half of an NFL football game in Arlington, Texas, Sunday, Dec. 15, 2019. Prescott connected with wide receiver Michael Gallup for the touchdown. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)

DALLAS — It’s never fun to miss the playoffs like the 2019 Dallas Cowboys did, especially when they won the NFC East the season before. The franchise is no stranger to success during its storied history, but finding consistency has been a major hurdle since the new millennium arrived. For example, the Cowboys have yet to win back-to-back division titles since the ‘95-’96 seasons.

The good news is, the NFL is famous for its parity. If a team misses the playoffs one year, it doesn’t mean that they are destined for the same outcome in the next season. Postseason turnover routinely occurs in pro football and the Cowboys could be on their way back up.

ESPN’s Bill Barnwell is up on the numbers and trends for the upcoming season and believes Dallas should be in line for improvement that could lead the team back to the playoffs.

Barnwell’s hit rate on these predictions has been good. Cowboys fans only need to rewind the clock a year to see him prognosticate that Jerry Jones’ team would decline after an unlikely late-season run to the playoffs in 2018. Barnwell hit the nail on the head last year and, ironically, the reason for the turnaround in Dallas’ fortunes in 2020 could be linked to the same reason for their downfall in 2019.

Games in the NFL are won and lost by the slimmest of margins; the Cowboys in 2018 won the majority of their close contests. It’s tough to do that year in and year out, where some luck is involved. The Cowboys were 8-2 in games decided by seven points or less in 2018, but their record fell to 0-5 by the same standards in 2019. The Cowboys won the NFC East in ‘18 by one game and lost the division by a game the next season.

As Barnwell breaks it down, it’s easy to see the path towards a better record for the Cowboys in the upcoming season. Just as it was clear that they were bound for a decline last year:

“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.”

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The point is clear, if the Cowboys were a little better in close games last year, they would have made the playoffs and it’s anybody’s guess as to what might have happened next. They made the postseason based largely on their ability to win close games in 2018, but it didn’t carry over to last year.

It’s hard to win games in the NFL and relying on winning close games is an exercise in futility, and success usually doesn’t translate from year-to-year when the margins are razor-thin.

Not much has changed for the Cowboys on offense, where they return with a stacked group that ranked atop of the league in offense and had a +113 in scoring. Gone is starting center Travis Frederick, slot WR Randall Cobb and TE Jason Witten.

However, the unit does have a number of options to replace Frederick, who wasn’t the same after returning from Guillain-Barre syndrome. Also, the addition of CeeDee Lamb and the expanded role of TE Blake Jarwin might make the offense even better.

The defense is less of a sure thing given the uncertainty of the health of its LB group, finding a secondary pass rusher and the reshuffling at CB. Still, it is a unit that has pieces to succeed, especially if they can feel emboldened by a new scheme and attack after the offense puts points on the board.

A new coaching staff should also help. Gone is Jason Garrett, who seemed comfortable maneuvering games to come down to the final minutes and putting those thin margins on the shoulders of his QB Dak Prescott instead of keeping the foot on the gas to put games out of reach.

Mike McCarthy brings a more aggressive approach and believes in the use of analytics in this new era of football. That can only help.

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The Dallas Cowboys had the makings of a winning team last season, but couldn’t pull out any of the close games. That trend is likely to regress to the mean this year, which makes the Cowboys a good bet to improve and make the playoffs in 2020.

Do you think the Cowboys will be able to come through in the clutch in 2020 and reclaim the NFC East? Share your thoughts with Ben on Twitter @BenGrimaldi.