by Kenneth Arthur
"Who is the best among them, given an equal playing field?"
This is one of the basic questions that "sports" tries to answer each year when determining a champion, but it’s easier to do in some competitions than it is in others. Individual sports like golf and cycling simply pit everyone against each other on the same field and see who has a better tournament, but football simply can’t have every team play every other team once. You could try putting every team on the same field at one time, but I’m pretty sure that’s what the XFL tried and that didn’t last very long.
Inevitably the schedules will vary so much that some teams will have it easier than others, and most likely those that have it hardest will have a more difficult time winning the Super Bowl that season. At its base level, a team's strength of schedule is mostly random. With the exception of the NFL's method of matching a team against their "division equal" for two games a year, the other 14 games are based entirely upon factors that have nothing to do with how good or bad your opponent is.
You'd prefer that no one team had a decided advantage over another based on something that's entirely outside of their control, but that’s just never going to happen. I’d prefer to have abs like Channing Tatum, but I’d be cast in a movie about Magic Shell ice cream topping before I’d get a role in Magic Mike.
Last season's biggest surprise, the Kansas City Chiefs, faced the easiest schedule in the NFL by DVOA. The AFC's representative in the Super Bowl, the Denver Broncos, had the next easiest. Chip Kelly's quick turnaround of the Philadelphia Eagles was certainly somewhat aided by the 29th-ranked schedule in the league. Meanwhile, two of the biggest disappointments in the NFL last year -- the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Atlanta Falcons -- were first and second in SOS DVOA.
Only a fool would blame a 4-12 record on strength of schedule alone. (The Cardinals had the fourth-hardest schedule and went 10-6, while the Saints were fifth and the Panthers were sixth.) But is it enough of a difference to change a "playoff team" into a January afterthought? Is it better to take the easy road or get put through the ringer so that you're "battle tested" for the playoffs?
After tracking the last 25 seasons by strength of schedule, here are some of the interesting facts that we can use to start to understand more about what your DVOA SOS means about your chances to W-I-N.
First or worst?
Every year, some team will inevitably have to play the most difficult schedule and another will get to face the easiest. One could imagine that the difference between facing the hardest schedule and the easiest schedule is significant, but when examining the evidence, it would appear that the difference is even more monumental than you may think.
The teams that have had the misfortune of facing the hardest schedule every season since 1989 have averaged 5.84 wins per year and a 20.84 seasonal ranking in DVOA. Only one team, the 1997 Steelers squad that went 11-5, has managed double-digit wins with the league’s hardest schedule. The difference in facing the league’s easiest schedule is slightly less than double the same total of wins; the 25 teams that had the league's easiest schedule have averaged 10.68 wins.
In theory, the team with the hardest schedule should have an average DVOA ranking of 16.5, but what we’ve seen through 25 years is a mark more than four spots lower than that. Whether or not that’s random, since a sample size of 25 teams is still relatively small, is unknown, but it is interesting nonetheless.
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The easier schedule has clearly led to more wins for those teams, but most of those regular season wins haven’t translated into postseason success. Only one team in the last 25 years had the easiest schedule in the league and went on to win the Super Bowl: The 1999 Rams. They were also the only team among those 25 to finish first in DVOA. The easy schedule so undermines the wins that it can lead to a lot of those "disappointing" teams that may not have been as good as they looked.
The 1990 49ers had the easiest schedule and won 14 games but were only seventh in DVOA. They lost to the Giants in the conference championship, a team that had 13 wins on the 10th-hardest schedule.
Last year, the Chiefs had the easiest schedule and blew it against the Colts in the playoffs. The Broncos had the second-easiest and were dismantled in the Super Bowl like they were an atomic bomb and the Seahawks were U2.
Meanwhile, five of the easiest schedules of all-time by DVOA came in 2010. That season the Packers slid under the radar with a team that was fourth in DVOA on the 15th-hardest schedule, then won the Super Bowl as the No. 6 seed in the NFC.
No team has benefited from an easy schedule more than the Seahawks of the mid-ought’s. Seattle had the easiest schedule in the NFL for five years running while playing in the abysmal NFC West. They parlayed that opportunity into five straight playoff appearances and a Super Bowl trip in 2005. That season they had the sixth-easiest mark in DVOA history at a -10.3% strength of schedule. But it doesn’t always work out that way for everybody.
In classic Jets fashion, New York had the easiest schedule in 1995 and still went 3-13.
What of the toughest schedules?
|Hardest schedules, by year:|
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Of the 30 most-difficult schedules measured by DVOA, not a single one of those teams won more than nine games. Only the 1998 Patriots, 2000 Jets, 2004 Ravens, 2005 Chargers, and 2007 Broncos managed to get over .500. Of those teams, the most interesting might be Pete Carroll’s New England Patriots that made the playoffs as a wild card and featured talent like Ty Law, Lawyer Milloy, Drew Bledsoe, Tedy Bruschi, and Willie McGinest, all of whom would go on to win a Super Bowl three years later. Without Carroll, of course.
The path to the Super Bowl might be right down the middle
I think every study should be looked at from at least two sides, and in this case we can look at what schedules tell us about success and what success tells us about the schedule. So how hard or easy were the slate of games for the last 25 Super Bowl winners?
By virtue of facing the 16th-toughest schedule by DVOA last year, Seattle was middle-of-the-pack in those rankings, and their -0.4% mark puts them at slightly easier-than-average. The 2012 Ravens also finished 16th in SOS, but some Super Bowl winners have faced much tougher and easier schedules than these two.
Overall, the 25 Super Bowl winners since 1989 average a -1.08% strength of schedule by DVOA, and rank 17.68 in their respective seasons.
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The 2008 Steelers had the toughest schedule since 1989 for a team that went on to win the Super Bowl. They had the third-hardest SOS. Though Pittsburgh got to play Cleveland and Cincinnati twice, they only faced one other team with a losing record that whole season: the 5-11 Jaguars. The Steelers had been put through the ringer that year, but does being "battle tested" really matter at all? Or would you rather get the easiest road to the Super Bowl as possible?
I think it’s always better to go easy on yourself in the regular season, because the playoffs are hard enough. Don’t believe me? Look at the team that the Steelers almost lost to that year.
The Cardinals went 9-7 on the 27th-hardest schedule, in probably the worst division in football. A series of fortunate events helped Arizona get two home playoff games against both NFC wild card teams, while avoiding the No. 1 seed Giants. The Cardinals were only ranked 21st in DVOA that season, but came very close to being the Super Bowl champions, and they were helped immensely by their easy schedule and weak division. Nobody would really remember or care that Arizona wasn’t all that great that year if they had won the Super Bowl, just like most people forget that the Giants weren’t that great in their two most recent Super Bowl championships either.
Or that New York’s 2007 and 2011 season are such anomalies in nearly every category you can imagine that I’d much rather just wipe them clean off the record books.
In fact, the NFL’s most recent "dynasty" may have never become a dynasty if not for an easy schedule. The 2001 Patriots had the third-easiest schedule in the league, were only 11th in DVOA, won the AFC East over the Dolphins by virtue of a tiebreaker, and subsequently got the No. 2 seed thanks to a weak conference. They may have never upset the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI if they had the third-hardest schedule that year instead.
The 2001 Pats got through the regular season on an easy schedule, which in turn helped build them into a dynasty, but it wasn't the easiest schedule ever had by a Super Bowl winner. Not even close.
'99 problems but a schedule ain't one
The 1999 St. Louis Rams stole America's heart that season, the story of a "grocery baggin' son of a gun" and his band of scrappy rascals that turned around a 4-12 season. "A Really Good Show On Astroturf" as they were called back then, I think, the Rams went 13-3 that season and averaged +17.3 points per game (an NFL record until the Pats broke it in 2007). But I think there are two aspects of that team that most people forget or were not aware of:
- St. Louis was ranked higher on DVOA for defense (third) than they were on offense (fourth)
- The Rams had the easiest schedule not just for that season, but for any season by any team since 1989.
Out of 765 team seasons, St. Louis’ SOS mark of -15.7% is lower than any team you can name since 1989. They played 13 games against teams ranked 19th or lower in DVOA and six games against the four worst teams in the NFL.
They went 1-2 against teams ranked higher than 19th in DVOA, with their only such win coming in Week 1 against the Ravens (11th in DVOA). They lost to the Titans (fifth) in Week 8, the best team that they played all year. Still, the easy schedule helped the Rams get to the Super Bowl, where they’d beat Tennessee by a nose.
Which goes back to the same point made earlier about the 2008 Cardinals: the most important thing you can do to win the Super Bowl is to get to the Super Bowl. However you can.
Had the Rams played even an average schedule, would they have won 13 games? Maybe. Were they the best team in the NFL that season? Probably. But we also know that the best teams don’t always win the championship. In fact, the 2013 Seahawks are the first team to rank first in DVOA in the same season that they won the Super Bowl since the 2002 Buccaneers. Had the 1999 Rams had a difficult schedule instead of an unbelievably easy one, they might not have had the edge they needed over the Bucs (11-5, eighth in DVOA) to get homefield advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. And considering that Tampa actually held a one-point lead over St. Louis late in the NFC title game that year, homefield could have played a crucial difference in the outcome.
It’s almost certainly better to have the kind of schedule that allows you to get every advantage you need headed into the playoffs, but is there anything we can do to use that information to possibly predict the successful teams of next season?
Last season is so 2013
Given the way that the scheduling system is setup, the difficulty of the NFC West as the most talented division, and the NFC as the stronger conference, the Seahawks could have a difficult time repeating as Super Bowl champions. This is possibly a factor that has kept teams from repeating championships in the 2000s like we had been accustomed to seeing in previous decades.
Seattle is set to play nine of their 16 games against teams that were in the top 10 in DVOA last year.
However, that only matters if you use 2013 DVOA data for 2014 teams, and that would be a waste of time. If you just look at last year's rankings, you'll see that the Chiefs jumped from 32 to 6, the Eagles from 28 to 8, the Cardinals from 26 to 10, and the Chargers from 22 to 12.
Meanwhile, the Texans dropped from 11 to 30, the Redskins from 9 to 29, the Giants from 7 to 27, and the Falcons from 10 to 25.
And those falls are a lot more "predictable" in hindsight than they were headed into the 2013 season. It wouldn't be fair to say we have no idea which teams will improve or fall flat on their faces next season, but certainly some things are going to happen that are unpredictable or won't make any sense. The Packers fell from 5 to 20 last year due to the injury to Aaron Rodgers, and will likely climb back into the top 10 if he plays a full season in 2014. The Texans placed almost their entire team on IR last year (the relevant players at least) and will get many of those guys back. Plus they added Jadeveon Clowney.
If you could accurately predict how the SOS will look for each team next season, you could also come up with some surprising predictions when looking for surprises in 2014. Instead, the best we can do is a ballpark figure that is likely going to be just as accurate as a ballpark guess on how teams will finish in the standings and in DVOA, which is always going to have some major misses.
Strength of schedule clearly matters. It has helped build both dynasties and dams. We’ll never know why the Patriots got that "random" fortune in the early 2000's that the Chargers did not in the mid-2000's, but I think it’s safe to assume that somehow the answer is "Norv Turner." It also matters that you're actually good enough to win the Super Bowl, and as a Seahawks fan myself, I can personally attest to how little it helps to win the division five years in a row if you’re simply the best of the worst. Like the New England dynasty, you still have to be really, really good. Not having a really difficult schedule just helps you get to where you need to be healthier, and quicker.
And then again, sometimes it’s just good enough to be the New York Giants; no stats or studies in the world can seem to explain how Eli Manning has two rings.
Kenneth Arthur is a writer for Field Gulls, SB Nation, and Fake Teams, and once had a blog about the movie The Room.