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Offseason Research

Teams Most Impacted By Scheduling Inequalities

by Warren Sharp
Updated On: May 14, 2021, 10:20 am ET

The NFL may try to make the schedule equitable.

But they haven’t tried hard enough.

For years, certain teams have been impacted considerably by scheduling inequalities.

After talking to coaches and front office personnel from multiple teams, I came up with a list of the scheduling spots that are the most difficult to deal with.

I analyzed these scheduling spots and uncovered significant NFL schedule inequalities in an in-depth study I published last year after the schedule was released.

This year, prior to the schedule release, I wanted to call attention to my findings and hope that the NFL releases a schedule that is more balanced in general.  And when it can’t be balanced, let’s hope it is more favorable to the teams it’s been unfavorable to in the past.

The most difficult scheduling spots teams to deal with as it relates to player health, rest and preparation are:

•    Rest disadvantage
•    Short week road games
•    Negated bye weeks
•    Games after playing on Sunday or Monday night on the road
•    Four games in 17 days

The rest disadvantage is particularly frustrating to teams and comes in many forms.

The first disadvantage involves ignoring a team’s own rest, which includes the amount of days an opponent has to prepare and rest for a game.  We know six days of rest between Sunday games is standard, but how often is a team playing opponents with more than that standard six days of rest?

Once that is determined, we can factor in a team’s own rest and simply look at the number of games a team plays when their opponent has more rest than they do.

On top of that, we need to factor in short-week road games, which happens when two teams play Sunday and then on Thursday. Even though there is no rest disadvantage for either team, the team playing on the road is still at a disadvantage.

While an individual season will inevitably show preferential treatment to certain teams due to the difficulty of schedule making, the NFL must strive to balance things out over a period of years.

Teams unfairly treated one year should get preferential treatment the next. There shouldn’t be certain teams consistently getting preferential treatment while other teams continue to get unfairly treated.

After all, the NFL is built on competitive balance. The worst teams are given better draft picks and play what is intended to be an easier schedule and vice versa for the best teams.

The schedule itself should attempt to treat all teams as equally as possible.

But looking over a large enough sample size, where no obvious favoritism or inequality should exist, it’s painfully evident.

I looked back at the last decade in the NFL to find anomalies and the results are disturbing to anyone who hopes each team is given as fair a shake as possible.

Preparation for games

Would it surprise you to learn that over the last decade, one team has played 42 games against an opponent that had over a week to prepare for them and just 18 games when their opponent had less than a week to prepare (net -24 games)? 

Meanwhile, another team has played only 27 games where their opponent had over a week to prepare and 30 where their opponent had less than a week to prepare (net +3 games).

That's a 27 game swing between these two teams and hardly seems equitable.

Opponent's rest

While there is a net zero across the league with teams playing on more rest than their opponents, would it surprise you to learn that one team has played in 43 games where they’ve had less rest than their opponent over the past decade? On top of that, would you be surprised to know another team has played just 19 games under the same conditions? 

That's a 24 games swing between the two teams. That doesn’t feel fair. There shouldn’t be a gap from 43 games to 19 games if the NFL is purporting to issue an equitable schedule.

Looking at individual team’s net of games with more rest vs less rest than their opponent, would it be unfair if one team played a net of +12 games with more rest than their opponent (34 with more rest and 22 with less rest) while another team played a net of -14 games (29 games with more rest and 43 with less rest)?

Short week road games

Short week road games are difficult to prepare for from both a player health and coaching standpoint.  Yet there are multiple teams that have played 16 short week road games over the last decade (maxi) and multiple teams that have played 4 or fewer.  Is that equitable?

Negated bye weeks

Teams should receive two benefits from a bye week. The first is their own ability to receive rest, rehab and prep. The second is their ability to have an edge in those benefits as compared to the opponent they next face. When Team A returns from a bye to play Team B, but Team B was also on a bye the prior week (or played Thursday the week before), it negates Team A’s edge in rest, rehab and prep.  

Over the last decade, while the average team sees 1.8 negated byes out of 10, there are two teams that have seen 5 bye weeks negated. Meanwhile, 25% of the league hasn’t had a single bye week negated. We can’t have some teams with 50% of their bye weeks negated while other teams are playing without incurring it once.

Road games on Sunday/Monday night

Playing a road game on Sunday or Monday night sets a team up for a short week of rest and prep.  While it may not seem like much to people on the outside, to the coaches and players, it’s a challenge and less than ideal.

So is it fair that over the last decade, two teams have played at least 20 times after a road game on Sunday or Monday night, while another team hasn’t played a single game?

Summary

As I wrote last year:

At the end of the day, shouldn't the NFL's goal be to provide as level of a playing field as possible?  Yet, far too often teams are on the far opposite ends of the spectrum, either facing tremendous impediments to success or receiving substantial edges. And it simply isn’t fair. 

Whether teams with favorable edges took advantage of the situation and won those games speaks to team and coaching competence, which is another discussion entirely and thus isn’t the focus.

The situation itself – the schedule variables – should be as balanced as possible to keep things as fair and equitable as possible.

Here are the teams that received the strongest benefit from the NFL schedule as it relates to player health, rest and preparation:

Prep and Rest Variables

The NFL needs to look into how they schedule games to try and make it more equitable across the league on an annual basis.

Each year, all 32 teams should have the same shot at making the postseason and Super Bowl. The NFL cannot pick their opponents, but the NFL can ensure that the timing of games is as equitable as possible.

While it will be impossible to make it fair every single year, we should never see the lopsided situations depicted above over a sample as large as 10 years.

It will be interesting to see the new schedule release and determine which teams have been aided most by preferential treatment as it relates to rest and preparation and then compare to the historical averages to see if the NFL is headed in the right direction with implementing more equitable scheduling practices.

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.