Sep 17, 2012

NFL Strength of Schedule: A Deeper Analysis

strength of schedule

The NFL Strength of Schedule (SOS) is always a popular topic before each NFL season begins but its accuracy and usefulness is sub-par at best. The basic formula takes the win-loss records of teams from the previous season then adds them up to give you a list of the toughest to the easiest schedules by winning %.  So what’s the problem with this method?
Let’s go straight to some analysis:

2011 St. Louis Rams Schedule (26th toughest) 122 Wins 134 Losses (.477 %)

Sept. 11 vs. Philadelphia Eagles 1 p.m. (10-6)
Sept. 19 at New York Giants 8:30 p.m. (10-6)
Sept. 25 vs. Baltimore Ravens 4:05 p.m. (12-4)
Oct. 2 vs. Washington Redskins 1 p.m. (6-10)
Bye Week
Oct. 16 at Green Bay Packers 1 p.m. (10-6)
Oct. 23 at Dallas Cowboys 4:15 p.m. (6-10)
Oct. 30 vs. New Orleans Saints 1 p.m. (11-5)
Nov. 6 at Arizona Cardinals 4:15 p.m. (5-11)
Nov. 13 at Cleveland Browns 1 p.m. (5-11)
Nov. 20 vs. Seattle Seahawks 4:05 p.m. (7-9)
Nov. 27 vs. Arizona Cardinals 1 p.m. (5-11)
Dec. at San Francisco 49ers 4:15 pm (6-10)
Dec. at Seattle Seahawks 8:30 p.m. (7-9)
Dec. 18 vs. Cincinnati Bengals 1 p.m. (4-12)
Dec. 24 at Pittsburgh Steelers 1 p.m. (12-4)
Jan. 1 vs. San Francisco 49ers 1 p.m. (6-10)

The 2011 Rams were expected by many to win the NFC west division, with a supposedly easy schedule and by playing well in the meaningless NFL pre-season (4-0). Unfortunately they finished with 2 wins and 14 losses, tied for last overall in the NFL.

If you took a closer look at the actual schedule you would have quickly changed your mind about the accuracy of SOS rankings and that’s before the San Francisco 49ers turned into a Super Bowl contender. If that’s one of the easiest SOS’s, what does one of the toughest ones look like you might say?   Well…..

2012 St. Louis Rams Schedule (4th toughest) 134 Wins 122 Losses (.523 %)

Sept. 09 at Detroit Lions 1:00 pm (10-6)
Sept. 16 vs. Washington Redskins 4:05 pm (5-11)
Sept. 23 at Chicago Bears 1:00 pm (8-8)
Sept. 30 vs. Seattle Seahawks 1:00 pm (7-9)
Oct. 04 vs. Arizona Cardinals 8:20 pm (8-8)
Oct. 14 at Miami Dolphins 1:00 pm (6-10)
Oct. 21 vs. Green Bay Packers 1:00 p.m. (15-1)
Oct. 28 vs. New England Patriots 1:00 p.m. (13-3)
Bye Week
Nov. 11 at San Francisco 49ers 4:25 p.m. (13-3)
Nov. 18 vs. New York Jets 1:00 p.m. (8-8)
Nov. 25 at Arizona Cardinals 4:25 p.m. (8-8)
Dec. 02 vs. San Francisco 49ers 1:00 p.m. (13-3)
Dec. 09 at Buffalo Bills 1:00 p.m. (6-10)
Dec. 16 vs. Minnesota Vikings 1:00 p.m. (3-13)
Dec. 23 at Tampa Bay Buccaneers 1:00 p.m. (4-12)
Dec. 30 at Seattle Seahawks 4:25 p.m. (7-9)

Coincidentally and ironically the 2011 and 2012 St. Louis Rams Strength of Schedules are complete opposites of each other in terms of opponent’s wins and losses. But are they really that much different? No, not at all. Even though no one can predict which teams will be good or bad in the future, but you could almost say the 2012 schedule is easier than the 2011 one based on closer observation.

The 2011 St. Louis Rams SOS was calculated as easy because of the previous weakness of the NFC West division which skewed the numbers. The 49ers improving from (6-10) in 2010 to (13-3) in 2011 completely changed that and added 14 wins to the SOS since you have to play each team in the division twice. That alone is already more than the whole difference in (wins-losses) between the 2011 and 2012 Strength of Schedules.

St. Louis Rams Non-Division SOS:

2011 86 wins 74 losses (.538 %)
2012 78 wins 82 losses (.488 %)

So which schedule is actually harder? It’s impossible to know precisely until the season is complete, but NFL Strength of Schedule rankings have produced very inconsistent results in predicting which teams will have tough or easy schedules. You can compare the initial SOS rankings to the final SOS rankings below and see how accurate their predictions were:

Before Season:  2011 St. Louis Rams SOS (26th toughest) 122 Wins 134 Losses (.477 %)
After Season:     2011 St. Louis Rams SOS (1st toughest) 151 Wins 105 Losses (.590 %)

Huge difference don’t you think?

Before Season:  2012 St. Louis Rams SOS (4th toughest) 134 Wins 122 Losses (.523 %)
After Season:     2012 St. Louis Rams SOS (??????????)  ???  Wins ??? Losses (???? %)

How will the 2012 SOS finish for the Rams? No one can predict that with any certainty so it’s best to go thru every schedule that interests you thoroughly and try to look for any outlier teams that may skew the SOS rankings.  A great example of this is the 2012 Buffalo Bills schedule which the majority of people assume is really easy and has many Bills fans and experts anticipating a great season.

2012 Buffalo Bills SOS (29th toughest) 121 Wins 135 Losses (.473 %)

A very quick look at the Bills schedule shows three teams that are influencing these rankings too much. The Browns (4-12), Colts (2-14) and Rams (2-14).  Just taking these three games out of the SOS formula results in a SOS of 113 Wins 95 Losses (.543 %).

The Bills 2012 SOS may not finish as the toughest overall like the 2011 Rams did but it is very unlikely it will finish as one of the easiest as predicted by the NFL strength of schedule.

Even though it may be a little more work and rather tedious going over each NFL schedule in such detail, it will give you a much better idea in determining who really has a tough or easy schedule and what factors influence strength of schedule rankings the most. 

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