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Offseason Research

Why the NFL schedule matters and who it hurts

by Warren Sharp
Updated On: May 19, 2021, 3:43 pm ET

The NFL released its 2021 schedule and it’s a major cause for re-evaluation of schedule strength.  We already knew WHO each team was playing this year. So from that perspective, we knew strength of scheduled opponent.  

But we didn’t know WHEN each team was playing. How many days do they have to prepare for their game as opposed to their opponent?  Which means we need to evaluate strength of scheduled timing.

Strength of schedule in regards to opponents and strength of schedule in regards to timing are two completely different things, and we could only evaluate the latter once the schedule dropped.

In order to evaluate the latter, we look at a number of variables related to rest and prep.

Those include:

-    Net rest edges
-    Opponent’s days to prepare for your game
-    More or less rest than opponent
-    Short week road games
-    Games off road Sunday night or Monday night
-    Negated bye weeks
-    4 games separated by 17 days

 

Net rest edges

This graphic shows the net rest edge for each team this season. Net rest is the total edge a team has in rest summed over the course of the season. It also shows the net rest by game. Each block is a single game where one team has a rest advantage or disadvantage. For example, a +1 block for Carolina indicates they have 1 extra day of rest compared to their opponent for one game this season. Sum up the individual game blocks and you get the net rest edge for the season.

You can see how important this is when you study the haves and have nots. The Panthers are +12 and the Patriots are -15. That’s a 27 day swing in rest edge. To put that in perspective: in a sport that spans FOUR months from start to finish, one team has nearly ONE month more rest than another team. That hardly seems justifiable. Remarkably, this is an improvement from schedules the NFL has issued in the past.

NFL Rest Edges

 

Opponent’s days to prepare for your game

If the standard is a game every 7 days, with 6 days of rest in between, how often does an opponent have more than standard rest to prepare to face your team?

Three teams (Bears, Steelers and Washington) play 6 games where their opponents have extra time to prepare for them.

Two teams (Bengals and Panthers) play 0 games where their opponents have extra time to prepare for them.

Once again, you should be able to see why studying the SCHEDULE TIMING is so important. While there are sure to be in-season variance and things the schedule makers can’t fully control, it seems highly unfair for one team to play zero games against a team with over a week to prepare while other teams play six such games. That’s a 6-game swing in a 17-game season.

 

More or less rest than opponent

As if they need more help, the Chiefs are the only team this year to receive five games where they will have more rest than their opponent.  

Again, this isn’t WHO they play. The NFL created this schedule on their own and decided they will let the Chiefs play five games where KC will have more rest than their opponent and will play only ONE game where KC will have less rest than their opponent.

The Chiefs +4 game edge in this category is the best for any team.

Which teams have the worst?

The Bears, Vikings, Raiders, Patriots, Titans and Washington are all net -3.  Most play 2 games with more rest and 5 with less rest.  A couple play 1 game with more rest and 4 games with less rest.

So there’s a 7-game swing from best to worst in a 17 game season in this category.

 

Short week road games

These are more rare, and naturally there will be plenty of teams to not play a single one of these games.  

But the NFL is still helping some teams far too often by not issuing these games evenly.

These short week road games are the worst type of games to have to play. Less time for coaches to prep, less time for players to heal and get healthy, less time to install a game plan.  Less of all of that than your opponent, because you also have to travel to the game.  

Teams to play two such games this year:

Bears
Steelers
Bills
Raiders
Packers
Buccaneers
49ers

It’s especially brutal for a team like the Bears and 49ers, as these are their 17th and 16th short week road games respectively since 2011.  Meanwhile, some teams have played less than 5 such games.

Particularly frustrating to some teams is the fact the Cowboys and Lions get to host Thanksgiving each year. This forces their opponent to play a short week road game annually and gives them the edge of hosting one.

The only way to offset that massive edge is to put Dallas on the road for a short week game.

The NFL tried to do that by giving Dallas two road Thursday games this year.

But they completely missed the point.

Neither of the Cowboys' Thursday games are on short weeks.

The first is Week 1 of the season. This gives Dallas as much prep and rest as they want, and actually allows Dallas to play with extra rest for Week 2 (more on that in a second).

The second is the week after Thanksgiving. This gives Dallas a full week of prep and rest.

Thus, neither road Thursday game puts Dallas in the bind of what truly makes that game difficult, which is SHORT REST.

I believe the NFL was likely aware this was the case, but put both on there as an effort to demonstrate they are giving the Cowboys road Thursday games, and they must think there aren’t people like me checking these things.

As for the Cowboys' Week 1 game, consider this massive edge. Dallas will play the Chargers in Week 2. Dallas will have 9 full days of rest prior to the game. The Chargers will have only 6. Making matters worse for the Chargers, their first game is in Washington DC. So the Chargers will have to fly on Sunday night cross country back to LA, making it further taxing on the players and giving everyone even less rest as they try to prepare for Dallas.

The final point on the Cowboys as it relates to road Thursday games on a short week:


 

Editor’s Note: Don’t forget to download the NBC Sports EDGE app to receive real-time player news and updates. Plus, it allows you to easily track your favorite players. Get it here!

 

Games after playing on road Sunday night or Monday night

Teams hate when they have to travel home and arrive in the wee hours of Monday AM or Tuesday AM.  It throws a wrench in their week of prep.

Obviously, many teams this year don’t play any SNF or MNF games, so they have zero issues.  But some teams play two road SNF or MNF games this year:

Bears
Vikings
Giants
Dolphins
Colts
Saints
Seahawks
Chiefs

 

Negated bye weeks

These are particularly annoying, because the two benefits a bye should theoretically give are extra time to rest and prep for your team, and a game with a nice rest edge over your opponent.

This year, 23 teams will enjoy such an edge.

But 9 will see their bye weeks negated by their opponent having a bye or substantial rest edge the same week.

Those 9 teams:

Bears
Steelers
Washington
Vikings
Patriots
Colts
Cowboys
Buccaneers
Cardinals

 

4 games in 17 days

This is only achieved when a team plays Monday night, a short week rest game on Sunday, a Sunday game on full rest and a short week rest game on Thursday.

It’s impossible for a team to play more games in fewer days.

In the prior decade, it's happened 21 times, so roughly twice a year. Over that decade, about half the teams never had to play such a stretch.

Unfortunately, four teams had to play that stretch twice: Eagles, Broncos, Ravens and Rams

There is only one team this year that has to play 4 games in 17 days.

Can you guess which one?

Although it SHOULD be one of the 15 teams who never played such a stretch in the prior decade, it’s not.

And it’s not even one of the 13 teams that played such a stretch once in the prior decade.

It’s the Eagles, who already played that same stretch twice in the prior decade.

Not only is it brutal to endure such a stretch, look at the teams they play on the short rest:
 
Week 4: Sunday on short rest after playing on MNF they face the Chiefs.
Week 6: Thursday on short rest after playing on Sunday they face the Buccaneers.
 
The defending Super Bowl champion and the defending Super Bowl runner-up. Both on short rest, in the midst of 4 games in 17 days.  

Adding to the brutal run, the Eagles then play 5 road games in the next 7 weeks (only one of seven teams to deal with such a run of road game).  

 

Summary

Below is a graphic that totals all the games for all the teams in the conditions discussed above and ranks their prep and rest edge for 2021. I’ve also included the ranking for the prior decade, analysis of which can be found in my prior article on the subject.

The teams that are hurt most in 2021 that have been in the worst spots the prior decade?  

Bears
Patriots
Giants
Colts

Sharp: Prep and Rest Variables
Warren Sharp

Warren Sharp is a football and betting analyst for NBC Sports. As a leading voice in football analytics, Warren writes a yearly book previewing the upcoming season from all angles at his Sharp Football Analysis website. You can follow Warren Sharp on Twitter @SharpFootball.