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Who Really Faced A Tough Schedule in 2016?

Imagine a Las Vegas sports book offered the following bet: -110 on every game played by every NFL team playing a schedule ranked in the bottom 50% of the NFL and -110 on on every game played by the opponents of every NFL team playing a schedule ranked in the top 50% of the NFL. You bet $110 on every game.

The sports book provides you with three choices to measure schedule strength: QC's strength of schedule rankings based on coaching statistics, Prediction Machine's (PM) strength of schedule rankings, and Football Outsiders' (FO) strength of schedule rankings.

If you chose QC's coaching stats as your measure of schedule strength, at the end of the 2016 season, you would have netted a small profit of $400.

If you chose PM's rankings to measure strength of schedule, at the end of the 2016 season, you would have lost $5,480.

If you chose FO's rankings to measure strength of schedule, at the end of hte 2016 season, you would have lost $5,060.

As Tables 1-3 below show, the reason you would have held your own if you chose your strength of schedule based on QC's coaching statistics but sustained a significant loss if you chose PM or FO as your measure of schedule strength is strength of schedule ranked by QC's coaching statistics is a perfect mirror image of strength of schedule ranked by PM and just 1 game off a perfect mirror image of strength of schedule as ranked by FO.

QC is unaware of any other attempt to compare or verify different measures of strength of schedule.

That coaching statistics produced results that are the photo negative of the results produced by both PM and FO is intriguing.

Logically, all else being equal, one would expect that NFL teams playing easier schedules would tend to win more games than NFL teams playing more difficult schedules. Logic prevails when schedule strength is measured by coaching statistics.

But logic does not prevail when schedule strength is measured PM's and FO's rankings. Instead, NFL teams playing more difficult schedules win more games than NFL teams playing easier schedules.

Well, you say, the NFL has long claimed that it makes its schedule so that stronger teams play stronger schedules. Perhaps the teams playing stronger schedules per PM's and FO's rankings are mostly the stronger teams and they are strong enough to make up the difference by their own independent superiority.

It does not look like it. First, all of the strength of schedule rankings agree that New England, which faced an NFL high 6 teams with design of -2% or worse, played the easiest schedule in the NFL.

Second, per coaching statistics only 3 teams had an outstanding season facing a top 50% schedule (winning percentage > .667) and 2 of those teams (Oakland, Kansas City) tied for the NFL's best turnover differential (+18). [The other team (Pittsburgh) just barely finished in the top 50% of schedule strength.] Likewise, all of the teams who suffered a terrible season (winning percentage < .333) facing bottom 50% schedules finished in the top 4 in the NFL in giveaways (Chargers, Bears, Jets, and Jaguars). If an NFL team beats itself with turnovers, then strength of schedule is turned "inside out" because the strength of the opposition is irrelevant when a team beats itself.

A few teams merit more detailed discussion:

Atlanta (Schedule Strength: PM: 9th FO: 16th QC: 30th)
The Falcons faced an NFL low 1 team who's play design +/- exceeded +2% (Denver) and an NFL low 5 teams who were positively designed. Also, more often than not, Atlanta faced bad pass defense. In 9 games, the Falcons faced a pass defense who's QCYPA was greater than 7.4. The Falcons play design +/- improved 2.22% in the first year of the Dan Quinn/Kyle Shannahan design partnership. Then, in 2016, it jumped a whopping 7.1%. This looks a lot more like a team that faced the NFL's 30th schedule than the NFL's 9th schedule.

Green Bay (Schedule Strength: QC: 1st PM: 10th FO: 19th)
The Packers faced 11 teams that finished the season positively designed, which tied Houston for the most in the NFL. Moreover, Green Bay faced an NFL low 1 team who's play design +/- was less than -2% (Philadelphia). In other words, there were no breathers on the Pack's schedule.

Arizona (Schedule Strength: QC: 9th FO: 30th PM: 31st)
Washington (Schedule Strength: FO: 3rd PM: 8th QC: 25th)

The records of these teams were closely matched as both won a division in 2015 and, as a result, both faced Minnesota and Carolina. Washington finished 8-7-1 while Arizona's 7-8-1 included a win over the Redskins. At first glance, it looks like Washington must have played the tougher schedule because its division opponents rang up 31 wins while the Cardinals division foes managed only 16 wins. But if you compare the team's non-division non-common opponents, every one of Arizona's 8 opponents was better designed than Washington's corresponding opponent. In division, Seattle was a little better designed than the NY Giants and Los Angeles was a little worse designed than Philadelphia so those 4 divisional games essentially were a wash. The Redskins 2 games with Dallas were much tougher than the Cardinals 2 games with San Francisco, but Arizona's schedule was the equivalent or better in almost every other game.

Dallas (Schedule Strength: FO: 8th PM 25th QC: 31st
Dallas rebounded from a 4-12 finish in 2015 to a 13-3 finish in 2016. Rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott got most of the credit for the massive improvement, but the schedule also contributed to the turnaround. The Cowboys played just 2 games against teams who's play design +/- exceeded +2% (Washington 2x). In addition, Dallas was the only team in the NFC who faced the two worst designed teams in the NFL (Cleveland, San Francisco).

NY Giants (Schedule Strength: FO: 5 PM: 16 QC: 28)
New York played 8 games against positively designed teams, but 7 of its 8 opponents who were negatively designed ranked No. 21 or worse in play design +/-. The Giants played 4 games against 3 of the 5 worst designed teams in the NFL (Cleveland, Los Angeles, Philadelphia 2x).

Los Angeles (Schedule Strength: QC: 10: PM: 20 FO: 24)
The Rams faced the 2 best designed teams in the NFL (Atlanta and New England) and played 5 games against teams in the Top 10 in play design. Other than 2 games with the 49ers and 1 game with the Jets, LA did not face any teams in the Bottom 10 in play design differential. Also, as measured by coaching statistics, the difference between the 10th toughest schedule and the 24th toughest schedule is a miniscule .50%.

San Francisco (Schedule Strength: QC: 4th PM: 22nd FO: 23rd)
San Francisco faced 3 of the 4 best designed teams in the NFL (Atlanta, New England, Dallas) and played 6 games against teams ranked in the Top 10 in the NFL in play design. In addition, because the 49ers (No. 31 in play design +/-) could not play themselves, SF did not play either of the worst designed teams in the NFL. San Francisco was 0-14 against teams ranking No. 29 or better in play design +/-. With new coach Kyle Shannahan bringing in QB Brian Hoyer, who was a 7.5 QCYPA passer using Shannhan's designs in Cleveland in 2014, and WRs Pierre Garcon and Marquise Goodwin and FB Kyle Juszczyk to play the roles Mohammed Sanu, Tyler Gabriel, and Pat DiMarco played last year in Atlanta, the 49ers should be improved in 2017.

New York Jets (Schedule Strength: FO: 12th PM: 19th QC: 22)
New York was the only team to play all three of the worst designed teams in the NFL (Cleveland, San Francisco, Los Angeles). The Jets played 3 more games against teams in the Bottom 10 in the NFL in play design (Buffalo 2x, Baltimore). In those 6 games, New York was 5-1. In their other 10 games, the Jets faced positively designed teams and were 0-10. Because the bottom of its schedule was so dreadfully bad, New York's schedule probably was a little stronger than coaching stats suggest it was.

TABLE 1: QC STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE RANKINGS

DIFFCULT SCHEDULES

EASY SCHEDULES

Rank

Team

W

L

Sum L

Sum W

W

L

Team

Rank

1

Green Bay

10

6

6

14

14

2

N. England

32

2

Cleveland

1

15

21

27

13

3

Dallas

31

3

Philadelphia

7

9

30

38

11

5

Atlanta

30

4

S. Francisco

2

14

44

45

7

9

Buffalo

29

5

Houston

9

7

51

56

11

5

NY Giants

28

6

Denver

9

7

58

59

3

13

Chicago

27

7

Carolina

6

10

68

69

10

6

Mami

26

8

Tampa Bay

9

7

75

77

8

7

Washington

25

9

Arizona

7

8

83

86

9

7

Tennessee

24

10

Los Angeles

4

12

95

96

10

5

Seattle

23

11

Oakland

12

4

99

101

5

11

NY Jets

22

12

Kansas City

12

4

103

104

3

13

Jacksonville

21

13

N. Orleans

7

9

112

112

8

8

Minnesota

20

14

Cincinnati

6

9

121

121

9

7

Detroit

19

15

Baltimore

8

8

129

129

8

8

Indianapolis

18

16

Pittsburgh

11

5

134

134

5

11

San Diego

17

 

TOTAL

120

134

.472

.528

134

120

TOTAL

 

TABLE 2: Prediction Machine's Strength of Schedule Rankings

DIFFICULT SCHEDULES

EASY SCHEDULES

Rank

Team

W

L

Sum L

Sum W

W

L

Team

Rank

1

Cleveland

1

15

15

14

14

2

N. England

32

2

Denver

9

7

22

21

7

8

Arizona

31

3

Philadelphia

7

9

31

28

7

9

Buffalo

30

4

Oakland

12

4

35

37

9

7

Tennessee

29

5

Carolina

6

10

45

45

8

8

Indianapolis

28

6

Pittsburgh

11

5

50

55

10

5

Seattle

27

7

Tampa Bay

9

7

57

63

8

8

Minnesota

26

8

Washington

8

7

64

76

13

3

Dallas

25

9

Atlanta

11

5

69

86

10

6

Miami

24

10

Green Bay

10

6

75

95

9

7

Detroit

23

11

N. Orleans

7

9

84

97

2

14

S. Francisco

22

12

San Diego

5

11

95

105

8

8

Baltimore

21

13

Kansas City

12

4

99

109

4

12

Los Angeles

20

14

Houston

9

7

106

114

5

11

NY Jets

19

15

Cincinnati

6

9

115

117

3

13

Chicago

18

16

NY Giants

11

5

120

120

3

13

Jacksonville

17

 

TOTAL

134

120

.528

.472

120

134

TOTAL

 

TABLE 3: Football Outsiders Strength of Schedule Rankings

DIFFICULT SCHEDULES

EASY SCHEDULES

Rank

Team

W

L

Sum L

Sum W

W

L

Team

Rank

1

Cleveland

1

15

15

14

14

2

N. England

32

2

Philadelphia

7

9

24

23

9

7

Tennessee

31

3

Washington

8

7

31

30

7

8

Arizona

30

4

Denver

9

7

38

38

8

8

Indianapolis

29

5

NY Giants

11

5

43

45

7

9

Buffalo

28

6

Carolina

6

10

53

55

10

5

Seattle

27

7

Tampa Bay

9

7

60

65

10

6

Miami

26

8

Dallas

13

3

63

68

3

13

Jacksonville

25

9

Baltimore

8

8

71

72

4

12

Los Angeles

24

10

Oakland

12

4

75

74

2

14

San Francisco

23

11

Houston

9

7

82

86

12

4

Kansas City

22

12

NY Jets

5

11

93

89

3

13

Chicago

21

13

Pittsburgh

11

5

98

97

8

8

Minnesota

20

14

Cincinnati

6

9

107

107

10

6

Green Bay

19

15

N. Orleans

7

9

116

116

9

7

Detroit

18

16

Atlanta

11

5

121

121

5

11

San Diego

17

 

TOTAL

133

121

.524

.476

121

133

TOTAL

 

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