"What the ... We have to travel to Seattle?"
Trying to predict the future has been part of the human experience since the beginning of time. Predicting the future seems to be an obsession with the human race, and it's no different with us NFL fans. Which teams will make the playoffs, who'll win the division, where will the Lombardi Tropy land this year?
Apart from a small minority of us NFL fans who, based on a false understanding of the Mayan calendar, believe the world will end on December 21, most NFL fans understand that trying to predict the future, per Peter F. Drucker, is like “trying to drive down a country road at night with no lights while looking out the back window.”
But that doesn't stop anybody from making predictions. In fact, knowing that predictions for 2012 are largely useless, we try to give those same predictions greater legitimacy by constructing data-driven models based on historical trends or data points to support our predictions. One such model that is widely used is the Strength of Schedule.
The traditional way of calculating NFL strength of schedule (SOS) is very straightforward. You simply add up the record of all 16 opponents from last year and you have the SOS for the coming season. Very simple. And also very irrelevant.
After the break, we look at three different methods for determining the strength of schedule for the NFC East and wonder what's to be done about all of it.
Let me get this out of the way at the beginning: Strength of Schedule doesn't mean Jack. There is no correlation whatsoever between a team's strength of schedule going into the season and the number of wins that team has at the end of the season. No, wait, let me correct that. The correlation (r²) over the last decade is a bout as close to zero as you can get. There is absolutely no correlation between a team's starting SOS and it's eventual W/L record.
But, but, but ... doesn't strength of schedule make or break a team's playoff chances and strongly affect division races? Again, let's keep it very simple. A strength of schedule based on 2011 records would matter - if you were playing in 2011.
For what it's worth, the Cowboys' SOS for 2012 is .504, the 11th "toughest" in the league. But in reality, the Cowboys' strength of schedule is what they make it. Here's why:
The Cowboys are an 8-8 team with an SOS of .504, meaning their 2012 opponents combined for a 129-127 record in 16 regular season games in 2011. Now let's assume the Cowboys had a 0-16 record. Everything else being equal, their opponents' W/L record would increase by eight wins and decrease by eight losses to 137-119 or .535. Similarly, if the Cowboys had ended the regular season with a 16-0 record, their opponent W/L would have been 121-135, or .472.
That is a significant swing in opponent winning percentage (.472 to .535) based on your own winning percentage alone, which in very simple terms means that the more games you win, the softer your SOS gets.
Having said all that, there are two alternative models for determining the difficulty of the upcoming season that were both published this week.
The first of the two are Football Outsiders, who published the 2012 Football Outsider's Almanac this week. In it, they calculate a Projected Average Opponent value, which gives the team’s strength of schedule for 2012 based not on last year’s record but on the mean projected DVOA for each opponent. By that count, the Cowboys come in with an average opponent DVOA (for those not familiar with DVOA it is explained here) of 4.0%, the 2nd toughest schedule after Denver.
The second model was published by BeyondTheBets.com. Instead of using last year's record, they use the Vegas projection for the 2012 win totals to arrive at a SOS. By this method, the Cowboys have an SOS of .508 and again rank 11th.
Here's how the the other teams in the East rank according to the three methods:
|2012 Strength of Schedule Projections|
|Team||2011 Opp. Record||Football Outsiders||Vegas Win Totals|
|NYG||.547 (1st)||3.2% (4th)||.529 (2nd)|
|PHI||.516 (7th)||0.7% (17th)||.488 (27th)|
|DAL||.504 (11th)||4.0% (2nd)||.508 (11th)|
|WAS||.488 (24th)||1.0% (16th)||.510 (8th)|
Of course, as we saw earlier, your actual SOS is an almost direct result of the number of wins you get in a season. Which brings us back to square one: the more games you win in the regular season, the more likely you are to make the post-season, regardless of the SOS number heading into the season.
Overall, it's simply how the cookie crumbles in the NFL. You can't have Miskatonic University on your schedule, nor can you play against the Academy of Visually Impaired Nuns. You play the hand you're dealt. Win more games than you lose, and more often than not you end up making the playoffs.