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Football Outsiders data suggests 2018 Cowboys schedule may be easier than you thought

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Divisional Round - Green Bay Packers v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Trying to predict the future has been part of the human condition since the beginning of time, and it’s no different for NFL fans. Which teams will make the playoffs, who’ll win the division, where will the Lombardi Trophy land this year?

Outside of a few folks who were blessed with the gift of prophesy, 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 hasn’t stopped anybody from making lots and lots of predictions about the 2018 NFL season. In fact, knowing that predictions for 2018 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.

Also very irrelevant.

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.

But that hasn’t stopped anybody from lamenting the tough schedule the Cowboys face this year. Just this week, the venerable Bob Sturm talked about how the Cowboys face a “Murderer’s Row” of opposing QBs this season.

Take just one look at the Cowboys’ schedule and you’ll quickly see the “Murderer’s Row” of opposing QBs for nearly all 16 weeks. September alone offers Cam Newton, Eli Manning, Russell Wilson, and Matthew Stafford. I don’t see a single CJ Beathard on the entire 16-game run, so the defense had better fully pull its own weight.

Can’t be Murderer’s Row if Eli Manning is included, of course, though it was quickly pointed out to me that there’s always someone who’s innocent of the charges on Murderer’s Row.

Quarterback aside, there have been lots of headlines this offseason about how tough the Cowboys’ schedule is, and how strength of schedule makes or breaks a team’s playoff chances and strongly affects division races. A sampling:

Again, let’s keep it very simple. A strength of schedule based on 2017 records would matter - if you were playing in 2017.

For what it’s worth, the Cowboys’ SOS for 2018 is .500, tied for the 15th “toughest” in the league. But in reality, the Cowboys’ strength of schedule is what they make it. Here’s why:

The Cowboys are a 9-7 team with a SOS of .500, meaning their 2017 opponents combined for a 128-128 record in 16 regular season games in 2017.

For argument's sake, let’s assume the Cowboys had a 0-16 record last year. Everything else being equal, their opponents’ W/L record would have increased by nine wins and decrease by nine losses to 137-119 or .535, which would have given the Cowboys the second-toughest schedule in 2018.

Similarly, if the Cowboys had ended the regular season with a 16-0 record, their opponent W/L would have been 121-135, or .473, tied for the third-easiest schedule in 2018.

That is a significant swing in strength of schedule (second toughest or third easiest) 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 other ways for determining the difficulty of the upcoming season. One way is to look at projections for 2018 as a proxy for team strength, and then calculate the SOS accordingly. Projections aren’t an exact science of course, but looking at projections has a clear advantage over looking at last year’s results: Projections are an attempt at predicting future performance, while W/L records are simply a snapshot of past performance.

Football Outsiders recently published their annual FO Almanac. As you know, we’re big fans of FO here at BTB, and like to mix in their stats in our posts. And we are not the only fans; even the Cowboys have praised their work in the past.

In the Almanac, FO Offers two data points that can help us calculate a forward-looking SOS, and thus avoid rearview-mirror-syndrome.

  • 2018 Win Projections: This is pretty simple. FO have a 2018 win projection for every team and adding up the projections for every 2018 opponent gives us the SOS for the coming season.
  • 2018 Projected Average Opponent Value. Instead of a win projection, FO use their proprietary DVOA projection for each team in 2018 to calculate a DVOA-weighted strength of schedule for 2018.

FO projects the Cowboys for 9.1 wins in 2018, the eighth-best value in the NFL. Combining the opponent win projections gives the Cowboys just the 24th-toughest SOS in the NFL. Or, to phrase it a bit more dramatically:

The Cowboys have the second-easiest schedule in the NFC (behind only the Packers) going by FO’s win projections.

Going by Average Opponent Value gives the Cowboys the 18th-toughest schedule, but even that is still the fifth-softest schedule in the NFC (behind Chicago, Minnesota, San Francisco, and Green Bay).

Here’s how the teams in the NFC East compare using the different SOS methodologies:

2018 Strength of Schedule Projections
Team 2017 Opp. Record FO Win Projections FO Average Opp. DVOA
New York 8th (.520) 6th 6th
Washington 14th (.504) 7th 8th
Dallas 15th (.500) 24th 18th
Philadelphia 19th (.492) 14th 11th

For the Cowboys, both forward-looking calculations give them a softer schedule than many of the offseason headlines would have had you believe.

And in the 16-team NFC Conference, they have the second-softest schedule by projected opponent wins and the fifth-softest schedule by opponent value. For a team looking for a playoff berth, that’s a good situation to be in.

The calculations don’t do much for the Giants either way, they have a tough schedule any way you look at it. For the Redskins and Eagles, the Football Outsiders data suggests their schedule will be a lot tougher than the traditional SOS calculations suggested.

Of course, as we saw earlier, your actual SOS is an almost direct result of the number of wins you get in a season - and that holds true for the FO projections as well. 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 or methodology heading into the season.

Overall, it’s simply how the cookie crumbles in the NFL. You can’t play the Browns 16 times a season, 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.