Monday, July 28, 2008

Strength (of Schedule) Training

A lot has been made of strength of schedule this offseason. Mark Craig of the Star-Tribune brings it up in a recent article, noting that the Vikings will play four games against the tough AFC South, which includes Indianapolis (13-3 in 2007), Jacksonville (11-5), Tennessee (10-6), and Houston (8-8). Likewise, the NFC East boasts teams like Dallas (13-3), New York (10-6), Washington (9-7), and Philadelphia (8-8). Each division saw three of its teams make the playoffs in '07, capturing both of its conference's wild-card berths, meaning that any team that has to run such a gauntlet should have a tough time breaking through and turning in winning seasons of their own.

There are, however, two problems with this line of thought:

Number one is fairly obvious: Teams change. The 2008 Dallas Cowboys or Jacksonville Jaguars are not the same as the 2007 Cowboys or Jaguars. From year to year, teams get better or worse, in equal measure. If anyone wanted to make a bet with me that either of those divisions will send three teams to the playoffs next year, I'd take it, straight up. One or two teams might be that consistent from year to year, but not six to eight. As I said in my post regarding opposing misery index, last year is last year, and things can (and invariably will) change.

The second is the equality of scheduling in the NFL. Yes, it stinks for the Vikings to have to play the AFC South, but the rest of their division has to do the same. And while that does put them at a disadvantage in the NFC as a whole, if they are competing for the wild card, keep in mind that at least one other division has to face a similarly difficult road. The NFC West plays all four teams of the NFC East, and while the South may not have quite the same caliber of opponents, the North plays the South, and so we control our own destiny in the conference, at least in some part.

Going back to point #1, it's highly unlikely that the teams in the NFC East and AFC South will fare as unilaterally well as they did in 2007. To wit, I looked back through the years since the league went to a 16-game schedule to see if there were any other divisions that boasted at least two 10-win teams and no teams at all under .500, as both the NFCE and AFCS did last year. I thought I might find a few, but I was surprised at the results.

Over 27 full seasons since 1978, only one other division -- the five-team, 1999 AFC East -- met those criteria, with Indianapolis (13-3), Buffalo (11-5), Miami (9-7), New England (8-8), and New York (8-8) combining to post a stellar 29-11 (.725) record outside their division. Next year was more moderate, with the teams posting 11-5, 10-6, 9-7, 8-8, and 5-11 records, for a total of 23-17 (.575) winning percentage outside their division. Of course, the teams totaled 20-20 in in-division games.

So the 2000 AFC East, while still above average, was hardly some great boogeyman to be feared, and I think the 2008 NFC North and AFC South will be similar -- good, but not likely great divisions. Strength of schedule is a neat little thing to look at and something for fans to get up in arms about during the off-season (You do know that the reason the Patriots have the easiest strength of schedule -- or at least a contributing factor -- is because they don't play themselves, right?), but it ultimately has very little effect on how a team will perform in the coming year.

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