There is a lot of attention paid every year to strength of schedule in the NFL. When the schedule is released lots of articles pop up talking about who has an easy schedule and who has a hard one, and talking heads go wild trying to explain what it all means and who has the edge. It’s talked about in grand and important tones, and given a lot of significance. This year, for example, people are talking about how the Niners and the Chargers could be lifted by schedules which are in the bottom five of the league in terms of difficulty, while the Texans, Bengals and Cowboys could see promising seasons compromised by playing top five difficulty schedules. There’s only one problem with that line of thinking – by itself strength of schedule is virtually a meaningless statistic. That’s especially true for NFL handicappers. Here are five good reasons why strength of schedule is more a distraction than a tool for bettors looking to place winning bets:
Last year doesn’t mean much this year – There are a lot of situations in which a team this year can have a very different outlook than they did last year. Just consider teams that make a coaching change, or teams that add or lose key personnel like a quarterback, or teams that change their schemes to better suit their personnel, or teams that just get dramatically better for no single reason. There are countless examples of each case. Looking at the Eagles last year and their record tells you little about them this year because McNabb and Westbrook were such important pieces of the offense that are now gone. What happened under Jim Zorn in Washington last year will bear little resemblance to what will happen this year under Mike Shanahan. Oakland certainly hopes to be a different team with Jason Campbell under center than they were with JaMarcus Russell. Kansas City has largely the same personnel as last year, but with Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel taking over as coordinators we can expect a totally different look than last year on both sides of the ball. Matt Leinart in Arizona is no Kurt Warner, and he has no Anquan Boldin to help him out. Baltimore has added more offensive weapons than they have ever had before. It goes on and on and on. We rely on what teams did last year to determine strength of schedule, and in each of these cases and many more what they did last year has no clear relation to what they are capable of this year.
It means less as the season progresses – The further we get into the current season the further away we get away from what happened last year, and the less meaning we can draw from what happened in that distant pass. Strength of schedule is barely meaningful in September, but it’s far less useful by November. When you are handicapping NFL lines it’s crucial you are using relevant, meaningful, current information. SOS doesn’t fit that bill.
The difference between the top and the middle is so small it’s hardly meaningful – The Titans have the toughest schedule this year – their opponents had a combined record of 140-116. The Raiders have just the 20th most difficult schedule, with an opponent record of 128-128. In the grand scheme of things the difference between 140 wins and 128 wins is tiny – three-quarters of a win per opponent. The NFL works hard to create fairly balanced schedules, so the difference between schedules just isn’t large enough to worry abut in most cases. Look at it another way – the Titans have the toughest schedule and their opponents averaged 8.75 wins last year. The Cardinals have the worst schedule, and their opponents averaged 7.125 wins. Even if we round those numbers, what’s really the major difference between a nine win team and a seven win team? A couple of lucky breaks and maybe slightly better talent. Those differences in the schedule aren’t going to make and break a team.
Doesn’t account for location of games – Last year New England was a perfect 8-0 at home, but a very ugly 2-6 on the road. Playing them in Foxborough was terrifying, but playing them in your own stadium was the kind of thing you hoped for. None of that is factored into the strength of schedule calculation. The only thing that is considered is that they are a 10-6 team. They played much better than a typical 10-6 team at home, and much worse than one on the road. The Pats aren’t an exception, either – The Vikings and Niners had a four win differential between their home and road records, and six more teams had a three win gap. On the other hand, the Cardinals were two wins better on the road than at home.
Doesn’t account for divisional play – The Bengals were 6-0 playing against their rivals in the AFC North, but just 4-6 playing against everyone else. Strength of schedule – which has them as a 10-6 team, underestimates their strength against their three conference rivals, and significantly overestimates their ability against teams in other divisions.