Debunking Strength of Schedule

Around this time of year, after the upcoming schedules are released, many fans like to fill the off-season void by rating the various teams around the league based on strength of schedule. Does this have any merit whatsoever?

It happens every year. The NFL announces its new schedule, then some reporter sits down with Excel and calculates the strength of schedule of every team in the league and pumps it out as news. Fans see the article, notice statements like “The Seattle Seahawks have the 3rd toughest schedule in the league,” and gasp.

It does sound bad. Having the “3rd Toughest Schedule” out of 32 teams sounds rough. If one considers it, something like this could prevent a playoff run this season, if we have to play all those tough teams. How can we ever succeed?

How indeed?

Just what does it mean?

The short answer is: Not much.

For one thing, the important statistic to consider is probably the strength of schedule at the end of the season, which is unavailable at the beginning of the season. The list is based on last season’s results, and the off season moves by all the teams in the league tend to change the applicability of last season’s numbers, sometimes dramatically.

For instance, take the 2002 season. Going in, based on the 2001 final results, the 2002 strength of schedule was .539, which looked like a pretty difficult row to hoe. In the end, our final strength of schedule was .506, which looked a bit softer. Not soft enough to help our 7-9 record, of course.

In 2003, our opening day strength of schedule was .443, once again not that strong. We finished with a 10-6 record against a schedule that finished at .465, which was somewhat stronger than predicted. But the difference represents less than one game overall.

A team will tend to change its own strength of schedule figure anyway. “Good” teams are dealing out losses that make all of their opponents look just a little bit worse, while “bad” teams are doing the opposite. Having said that, the Seahawks 2003 experience shows that even while we were dealing out 10 losses to the rest of the league, it appears that our competition was even tougher than predicted before the season. Those who think that our 10-6 record was not that much of an accomplishment should consider that.

How tough is tough?

Once again, the short answer is “not that tough.”

Seattle’s strength of schedule for the 2004 season, based on 2003 results, is .516. This represents the win/loss percentage of the teams we will face this season. Just what does this mean?

Well, if you calculate back, a .516 win/loss percentage represents a record of just slightly more than 8-8 (.500). The “toughest” schedule this year is owned by the Miami Dolphins, with a .531 percentage. That is equivalent to an 8-7-1 record. The “softest” schedule, owned by the Cowboys, is .469, which corresponds to a record of 7-8-1. So, from top to bottom, the strength of schedule table represents a spread of about 1 game overall across a 16 game season.

In effect, our 10-6 team from last season will face a schedule just a tad worse than playing 16 games against 8-8 teams. Anybody feel a bit more relieved?

The real situation

The NFL is center-weighted. The draft tends to drive teams toward the center of the pack, record-wise. Bad teams pick first, good teams last. This will have a tendency to make everybody in the league a .500 team, if player talent were the only factor.

Supporting that trend is an intangible factor, in which teams tend to “get up” more for better teams, division rivals, last years Super Bowl winner, etc. Once again, this provides an emotional push toward the center.

As you can see, there are real pressures that try to force every team in the league to that 8-8 standard. It makes it even more impressive that teams can win 12 or more games in a season. The truth is, it is harder to go from 10 wins to 12 than it is to improve from 4 wins to 6, or 6 wins to 8.

The current NFL organization is just about ideal. Having 32 teams in 8 equally sized divisions leads to a scheduling formula that is nearly perfect. The way it is set up, every team in the league will play at least 3 divisional champions every year. Division winners will play against 4 other division winners. Schedules, based on the current formula, are pretty balanced. Hopefully, the league will not give in to greed and expand any time soon. Adding one more team (or two) would upset that balance.

Strength of schedule makes for good headlines (“Seahawks face 3rd toughest schedule in the league,” gasp!), and it makes some good fodder for fan discussion, but if you sit down and do the numbers it really doesn’t mean that much.

Besides, there isn’t anything we can do about it. Like the coaches say, all you can do is go out and play the games.

Strength of schedule aside, the Seahawks match up well against our divisional foes. With our offense returning virtually intact and the improvements we’ve made on defense we have a right to be excited about the upcoming season. This could be something special.

Strength of schedule? Bring it on!

Steve Utz writes a column for Seahawks.NET every Sunday. Send your feedback to Steve at Top Stories