A trade of the first overall pick apparently wasn’t enough for the NFL, which also took Thursday to release the week-by-week schedule for the upcoming 2016 season. It’s fair to suggest that there’s too much ceremony surrounding the schedule when we already know the opponents for each team at the end of the preceding regular season, but there’s something tangible about actually seeing the schedule in order. Road trips are being planned. It’s the next step on the way to real football.
And sure, while we didn’t learn anything new about the opponents, the order of when and how they appear on the schedule sure seems to matter. With the possibility that Tom Brady will be suspended for the first four games of the 2016 season, you’d better believe that the Cardinals and Texans are happy they drew the Patriots in September and not December. It seems reasonable to figure that the warm-weather Jaguars will be disappointed that they’re meeting the Bills in late November instead of taking a trip to Buffalo during the opening weeks of the year. We now have all kinds of meaningful information we didn’t have before.
Now that we’ve had time to run through the 256-game slate, here are some useful nuggets from Thursday’s announcement and how they might affect the 2016 campaign. That begins with a matter of rest …
Who is on a short week most frequently?
Nobody likes a short week. A compressed week means at least one missing day of rest and/or preparation. It’s hard enough to win in the NFL with a full week to get ready for Sunday. Every team gets two long weeks of rest built into its calendar, given that its starters basically start the season on an extended break after sitting out/barely participating in the fourth preseason game and get seven days off because of the annual bye.
Every NFL team also picks up at least one short week during the season, but all schedules aren’t created equal. There are two teams that have four different short weeks this season, including the Texans and Jets. Take Gang Green’s schedule. After debuting on Sunday of Week 1, they travel to Buffalo for a Thursday night game on four days’ rest. They face the Ravens on a Sunday, six days after a Monday night encounter with the Cardinals, then have back-to-back six-day weeks later in the year. That’s about as rough of a schedule as it gets.
Compare that to the Chiefs, who play on Sundays 15 out of the 16 possible times this season. The only time they stray from their lovely course is to sneak out for a Thursday night contest against the Raiders in Week 14. Kansas City is the only team in the league to avoid facing two or more short weeks this year. The average team is up against 2.6 short weeks in 2016, so that’s a nice hidden advantage for Kansas City.
On the flip side of all this, the team that gets to enjoy long weeks most often this year? That’s the defending NFC champion, Carolina. Including their time off before the season and their bye, the Panthers will have a whopping seven games in 2016 with eight days or more between contests. Four of Carolina’s first seven games come on extra rest, including matchups against the Broncos (in the season opener) and Cardinals, while the Panthers face just one team on short rest over that same time span. The Chiefs, naturally, have the fewest long weeks in their schedule. They’re tied with the Steelers, each having just three long weeks on the books for 2017.
Who has the best bye week?
Stop. Honest. If you’re angry about having an early bye week because you want your team to get its week of rest later in the year, you’re wasting your energy. History tells us that there is no meaningful relationship between the time when a team has its bye week and its eventual success. If anything, teams with early bye weeks seem to have been more successful, although I doubt the evidence is strong enough to make a definitive claim.
Who goes on the most forbidding road trip?
The NFL is typically very good about keeping teams away from spending weeks at a time on the road. There are the occasional multiweek trips to one coast or the other, but the vast majority of the league’s teams go only two games before playing at home. The only exceptions are the Packers and Redskins, each of which go on three-game road trips at one point or another this season.
Of course, between the two of them, I think most people would pick the Packers and their schedule. No, not because they have Aaron Rodgers and the rest of the league doesn’t. It’s because the league made up for that three-game stretch for the Packers by giving them a whopping four-game homestand during the fall. Kirk Cousins & Co., meanwhile, don’t even enjoy as much as a three-game stretch without traveling on the road. Their longest home trip lasts just two weeks. They also drew the short straw of playing the Cowboys on Thanksgiving.
Which Pacific time zone team has to play the most 10 a.m. games?
Bruce Irvin, who left the Seahawks but stayed on the West Coast when he signed with the Raiders, had only bad things to say about his new team’s slate of contests. Primarily, that was because of what the league will ask Oakland to do in early mornings. The Raiders will play five games in the early-afternoon slot this season, a time zone that will feel to the up-and-coming team from the West like it’s 10 a.m. That includes three trips East to start the season over a four-week stretch, including games against the Saints, Titans and Ravens. All five of the Raiders’ early road games fall in the first half of their schedule.
The only other team that comes close is Los Angeles, with the Rams holding four 10 a.m. games. They throw in a fifth by virtue of their trip to London for a “home game” against the Giants. Ah, the things the NFL makes you do when you decide you want to move …
Which team has the most lopsided schedule between the two halves of the season?
No team’s schedule is too egregious, but I’d probably nominate the Jets, who play six road games through the first nine weeks of the season thanks to a schedule where they play one home game followed by two road games three consecutive times. Afterward, obviously, they’re home for most of the campaign, with a three-game homestand and five of their final seven games in the friendly confines of North Jersey. That’s less-than-ideal sequencing; you would almost always rather have the easiest part of your schedule early in the year, given that it looks better to start 6-2 and finish 8-8 than it does to start 2-6 and have your fans give up before rallying to go 8-8.
In terms of strength of schedule, there’s an obvious case. First, though, a brief explanation on strength of schedule. Projecting a team’s future strength of schedule using last year’s win total is brutally wrong and often wildly inaccurate. A better measure of team performance that offers more predictive value is to use the winning percentage generated by a team’s points scored and points allowed, a concept that dates back to Bill James’ observations in his baseball annuals.
The most lopsided schedule from half to half in terms of opposition quality is that of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Their slate before a Week 8 bye is actually downright staggering: Pittsburgh faces four playoff teams (Washington, Cincinnati, Kansas City and New England), a Jets team that won 10 games, and the Eagles and Dolphins. Washington and Philadelphia don’t look quite as dangerous when you judge them by their point differential, but the Chiefs and Bengals remain monstrous.
After the bye, Pittsburgh has five games against teams that will pick in the top six of this year’s draft, plus matchups with the Colts, Giants and Bills. Pittsburgh’s strength of schedule before Week 10 is 0.555, the third-worst figure in football. Afterward, that same schedule falls to an expected winning percentage of 0.417, the easiest slate in the league. If the Steelers can limp into the second half on a winning streak or even at .500, they could very well go on a speedy run toward a division title.
The team on the opposite side of the spectrum is Oakland. The Raiders face the league’s second-easiest schedule (0.449) through Week 8 thanks to matchups against the Titans, Ravens, Chargers and Jags. The schedule turns on a Week 9 matchup against the Broncos, though, and gets worse thereafter. Oakland has four games against playoff teams in the second half, including both participants in last year’s Super Bowl. Their average opponent from Week 10 forward has a projected Pythagorean winning percentage of 0.556. Only the 49ers will face a tougher average opponent over that time frame.
And hey, speaking of the 49ers …
Who faces the easiest schedule? What about the toughest?
Let’s conclude by taking a broader look at each team’s schedule, in terms of this projection, using Pythagorean Expectation. The 49ers hardly need bad news these days, but they’ll get another piece of it here: They’re facing what is expected to be the toughest slate in football this season. San Francisco travels to Carolina in Week 2, has to play the Seahawks and Cardinals twice, and hosts the Patriots. It’s no different from the Rams, who have the second-toughest schedule. The difference between the two? The Rams get to play the 49ers twice while San Francisco, sadly, cannot play itself.
The easiest slate belongs to a team that some think to be on the rise this year. The Bears also enjoy a friendly NFC North schedule, which includes the NFC East and the AFC South, the two worst divisions in football a year ago. They do have four games against playoff teams inside of their division, but Chicago’s last-place finish cuts it into games against the Buccaneers and 49ers. The third-placed Lions, who have the league’s second-easiest schedule, instead get the Saints and Rams. You can see the estimated strength of schedule for all 32 NFL teams below: