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Point, counterpoint: Strength of schedule

Posted Apr 16, 2012

Is 'strength of schedule' a true indicator of a schedule's difficulty?

Vic KetchmanPackers.com Editor Vic Ketchman says yes.

Contrary to the “any given Sunday” mantra, I do believe some schedules are more difficult than others and I have long believed the schedule-maker is one of the most powerful men in the league. So, yeah, I sneak a look at the “strength of schedule” standings because I think it’s a meaningful stat.

I’ll also tell you that the number of tough teams on a team’s schedule is more telling than the opponents’ combined record in the previous season but, generally speaking, the “strength of schedule” percentage is a hard and fast account of the bottom line in a bottom-line business.

The Packers played the Lions twice in 2009, a year after the Lions were 0-16. The Packers’ “strength of schedule” was 0-32 before it showed a win. Misleading you say because one or two really bad records can skew a schedule’s degree of difficulty?

Well, the Packers beat the Lions twice by a combined 60-12 in ’09, which meant an eighth of the Packers’ schedule was a cupcake. What’s misleading about that?

I’m not a big stats guy, but wins and losses are the ultimate stats, so they must say something about the difficulty of a team’s schedule.

The combined 2011 record of the Packers’ 2012 opponents is 120-136, which indicates the Packers’ schedule lacks a high degree of difficulty. When I look beyond the won-lost record, I see nondivision opponents that jump out at me: Giants, 49ers and Saints. So what makes this schedule so inviting? The Colts and Jaguars were a combined 7-25, the Rams were 2-14 and the Vikings were 3-13, which equates to 6-26.

Those five games are supposed to give the Packers a head start on a playoff berth. Win five of the other 11 and you’re in the postseason, conventional logic would dictate.

Meaningful? Last season’s “strength of schedule” and results say it is. None of the teams with the seven-toughest “strength of schedule” percentages heading into last season made it into the postseason. Four of the teams with the six-easiest schedules heading into the season made it into the postseason. The combined record of the Super Bowl-champion Giants’ opponents was 126-130.

Do stats lie? Sure they do. But these are wins and losses.

Mike SpoffordPackers.com Staff Writer Mike Spofford says no.

I’m not a fan of “strength of schedule” numbers. Not when they’re reduced to percentage points and, frankly, not even in more general terms, most of the time.

There’s just too much variation from week to week within a given season, and from year to year. Plus, there’s too much parity within the league itself to bother studying a team’s schedule that closely.

I’m a big believer in the “it’s not whom you play, it’s when you play them” theory. When the Packers’ injuries spiked in Weeks 5 and 6 of 2010, that was the time to play them. Washington and Miami beat the Packers then but were nowhere to be found come playoff time, as Green Bay won it all.

I also don’t look too closely at how many “playoff teams” are on the schedule. Since the NFL went to its current eight-division format in 2002, no season has seen fewer than five teams make the playoffs that didn’t make the playoffs the previous season. The average has been six per season in the last decade, or half of the 12-team field.

In 2003, eight of the 12 playoff teams were not so-called “playoff teams” on other teams’ schedules that year. Looking strictly at the NFC, in both 2005 and 2008, five of the six playoff teams had not gone to the playoffs the prior year. So forgive me if I don’t put much stock in the “playoff teams” on a schedule.

To me, the “strength of schedule” quantification gets even more misleading with the total win-loss breakdowns. For every team that was scheduled to play the Packers in 2011, mathematically they had a 10-6 team on their slate but, of course, the Packers weren’t just any 10-6 team. They were the Super Bowl champs.

The same can be said this year. Nobody in the NFC East is going to have a dynamite “strength of schedule” number because the Giants, who won the Super Bowl, were 9-7. But every team in the NFC East has to play the Giants twice, and the Packers have to play the Giants, too. I don’t think anybody is looking at that rematch with the Giants as a game against a 9-7 team.

Look, all this stuff is fun to talk about. It’s what keeps us going during the long offseason as we look at schedules and anticipate the formal announcement of it. There’s nothing wrong with a little debate.

Just don’t tell me that so-and-so’s schedule is tougher because they have six “playoff teams” on it while another team only has four, or because one team’s opponents’ winning percentage is 25 thousandths of a point higher than another’s.

I’m not interested. I’ll wait for the games to actually be played.

What do you think?

 
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