Saturday, April 25, 2015
Do NFL Teams Get Bad Schedules?
Washington Redskins fans, you might not want to hear this.
University at Buffalo engineers, who have done a study on imbalances in the NFL schedule and presented it at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference earlier this year, have studied the 2015 NFL schedule that was released this week. One of the main imbalances they look at is which teams get the most games against "rested" opponents – those coming off Thursday night games or bye weeks.
Yep, Washington got the shortest stick in that area.
Washington plays five games against opponents with extra rest this year, the UB engineers said. That's the most in the NFL. The Redskins have three games against teams coming off bye weeks and two games against teams coming off a Thursday game. That's a very high number; it's almost one-third of Washington's schedule.
Other teams shouldn't be too happy either. The Dallas Cowboys and Seattle Seahawks each have four games against opponents with extra rest. The New England Patriots, Buffalo Bills (who have frequently gotten imbalanced schedules the past few years), San Diego Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs are next at three each.
"We had a detailed look at the 2015, and we see again the imbalances are significant," said Murat Kurt, PhD, an assistant professor in UB’s Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering.
Some teams should be much happier with their draw. The Miami Dolphins, Cincinnati Bengals, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers and Arizona Cardinals don't play any games against teams coming off a bye or a Thursday night game.
This all might not seem like much, but it is a disadvantage. In a 16-game season in which playoff spots are almost always determined by just one game or tiebreakers, it's worth noting. When the engineers studied the issue they found that from 2009-13 a team's average winning percentage decreased by 3.77 percent against rested teams. In 2013 it was a decrease of about seven percent.
Rested opponents aren't the only factor UB engineers note. A cluster of divisional games in a row can be inequitable. The Green Bay Packers are the big losers there. From Nov. 15 to Dec. 3 the Packers play four divisional games in a row, something that is very rare.
"Playing four back-to-back divisional games – which are often your toughest because those opponents know you best, they're playing hard and it means the most – is difficult," said Mark Karwan, PhD, Praxair Professor of Operations Research and SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor. "They should be spread out."
Another scheduling inequity the Buffalo engineers focused on was at least three road games in a row. Buffalo, Miami, Jacksonville and Atlanta got three road games in a row this season. The Bills have five road games in six weeks, a particularly tough stretch.
Travel itself can be unbalanced. Kurt provided the examples of Baltimore and Tennessee. The Ravens have back-to-back trips out west twice during the season; Weeks 1 and 2 at Denver and Oakland and Weeks 6 and 7 at San Francisco and Arizona. Compare that to the Titans. Their first two trips aren't too bad (at Tampa Bay and Cleveland) and then they have a five-week stretch in which they won't leave Nashville. From Week 3 to Week 7 they have four home games and a bye week.
"They don’t leave their home for 5 weeks," Kurt said. "That’s kind of easy."
Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Seattle all have a four-week stretch that includes three home games and a bye.
The schedule will never be entirely fair, but the UB crew of Kurt, Karwan, Niraj Pandey (a PhD candidate in UB’s Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering), and Kyle Cunningham (earned a bachelor of science degree from UB in 2014), tried to figure out a solution. They came up with the study “Alleviating Competitive Imbalances in NFL Schedules: An Integer-Programming Approach,” and created a mathematical model called a mixed-integer linear program to produce the most fair schedule possible. They're Bills fans, and part of the reason for the study was that the Bills complained about playing many rested opponents. Sure enough, the engineers found that the Bills played more games against rested opponents (26) than any other team from 2002-2014. (For those curious the Bengals have been the most fortunate team in that regard; their 12 games against rested opponents are three fewer than any other NFL team.)
But the NFL has other considerations when making the schedule, most notably television partners and conflicts at stadiums. Even in the UB model, they're unable to eliminate all inequities; Karwan said their model will still have issues like three road games in a row. It's tough to fit a 256-piece puzzle together.
"There will be inequities due to the TV considerations and stadium availability and special requests by teams," Karwan said. "But what they may be able to do is think about these competitive imbalances – and I’m sure they do because I’m sure everybody thinks they’re against them – but they can spread them out over the years."
The NFL generates thousands of versions of the schedule through its computers to come up with the best one to satisfy everyone's desires. But in the end, there will always be a few teams that have a complaint.
"Eventually they have to come out with the schedule," Karwan said. "It’s a mathematical impossibility to make everyone happy."