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Tough Schedule May End Up Hurting Cowboys Twice This Year

When the 2010 NFL schedule was released in April, the only thing that really made any significant news for the Cowboys was the fact that Dallas had the third toughest strength of schedule for 2010. Now that the regular season is nearing its end, we can take a look at how the schedule has actually played out so far.

And we do that also with a keen eye on the Cowboys' draft spot, because strength of schedule is used as a tiebreaker to determine draft spots. So after starting the season with a tough schedule and flaming out dramatically, will the strength of schedule end up hurting the Cowboys again when it comes to the draft spots?

After the jump, we look at how the strength of schedule has played out for the Cowboys, which teams ended up holding the long or short sticks this year, and look at what implications all of that may have for the Cowboys' draft position.

Actual Strength of Schedule (SOS)

Based on the opponent win/loss records from the 2009 season, the Cowboys started the 2010 season with the third toughest SOS of .543. After week 14 of this season, that figure has mellowed somewhat to .529, making the Dallas SOS ‘only' the seventh toughest in the league. Leading the league are the Panthers (.591), Bengals (.587) and Bills (.582).

At the bottom of the table, the Chiefs (.413) and Rams (.442), as well as the Chargers, Giants and Jaguars (all .447) have all enjoyed a fairly soft ride so far this season.

Remaining SOS

With three games left, the schedule doesn't hold a lot of surprises anymore, but that final stretch will be brutal for some teams: The Packers, possibly without Aaron Rodgers, face the Patriots, Giants and Bears in the final three weeks. Those three teams currently have 29 combined wins, making the Packers' remaining schedule the toughest down the stretch. The Saints (28) and Bills (27) are close behind.

The schedule can also look like a walk in the park for some other teams. At least on paper, the Chargers (10 combined opponent wins), Cardinals (10) and Steelers (15) have the softest remaining schedule, although the Cardinals might disagree with that as they face the resurgent Cowboys and 49ers in addition to the most likely non-resurging Panthers. The Cowboys' last three opponents currently have a combined 18 wins, which ties the Cowboys with four other teams for the 10th softest remaining schedule.

Draft Position

These are the rules for determining the draft order for the 2011 draft:

  1. Teams that make the playoffs receive the last 12 draft picks from position 21-32, ordered by which round of the playoffs they were eliminated.
  2. Teams that didn't make the playoffs are ordered by their regular season W/L record.
  3. The tiebreaker for teams with identical records is the Strength of Schedule. For the draft order, the lower SOS results in an earlier pick.
  4. If the SOS does not resolve a tie, a division or conference tiebreaker is used. If that fails as well, draft order is determined by a coin toss during the combine.

So there you have it. SOS will play a key role in determining the Cowboys' draft position, and a high SOS is definitely not a good thing to have.

A lot of people currently see the Cowboys getting a top 10 pick in the 2011 draft, with the general consensus pointing to a spot at around number eight. We may need to re-evaluate that based on the SOS.

For arguments sake, let's assume the Cowboys win their last three remaining games and end up 7-9 (although 6-10 is more likely imho). Let's further assume that all teams which currently have seven or fewer wins do not get past seven wins for the total season. In this hypothetical scenario, all teams with between four and seven wins today would be direct competitors for a draft spot. That's 13 teams as per the table below:

Team Wins Losses Win % SOS 2010 OPP comb. W/L
MIA 7 6 0.538 0.519 108-100
IND 7 6 0.538 0.481 100-108
SD 7 6 0.538 0.447 93-115
SEA 6 7 0.462 0.490 102-106
OAK 6 7 0.462 0.476 99-109
STL 6 7 0.462 0.442 92-116
CLE 5 8 0.385 0.567 118-90
MIN 5 8 0.385 0.534 111-97
HOU 5 8 0.385 0.524 109-99
TEN 5 8 0.385 0.519 108-100
WAS 5 8 0.385 0.519 108-100
SF 5 8 0.385 0.495 103-105
DAL 4 9 0.308 0.529 110-98
ARI 4 9 0.308 0.466 97-111

Out of these 13 teams, only two, the Browns and the Vikings have a higher SOS than the Cowboys. That means that whenever there is a tie in terms of W/L between teams, the Cowboys will almost always lose the tiebreaker and end up a couple of spots lower in the draft order.

Take the example in the table above. If the season were to end today, Dallas would lose out to Arizona on the SOS tie breaker and get the seventh pick instead of the sixth pick. If the Cowboys had one more win (making them 5-8 instead of 4-9), the same SOS, and the season ended today, they'd lose out on the SOS tiebreaker to the 49ers, Redskins, Titans and Texans and end up with the 11th pick.

Based on the current SOS and the remaining schedule, and taking into consideration the five teams who currently have three wins or less, the Cowboys could well end up picking between the 13th and 15th spot this year.

However, the situation remains very fluid. The difference in opponent combined W/L between the Cowboys and the Redskins, Titans, Texans, Vikings and Dolphins is two wins or less. A lot can still change in the SOS.

So I don't want to be a pessimist. It is perfectly reasonable to expect a miracle to happen at any time. Only, it would have to look pretty much like this: All the Cowboys' opponents from this season lose (or tie, in the case of direct matchups in the next three weeks) their remaining three games. Then the Cowboys' SOS would magically drop to .430 and the Cowboys would win any tiebreaker for a draft spot. Of course, then the Cowboys would have also won three games, compiled a 7-9 record, and ended up with a draft spot in the low teens anyway.

If you are unsure which teams to root for over the coming weeks, root for the opponents of the teams the Cowboys have already played or will play this year. The more losses the Cowboys' opponents pile up, the more the Cowboys' SOS goes down. In the end, this may well be worth a couple of draft spots in April.

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