Once the Super Bowl has ended and we start looking ahead to 2018, a common point of discussion is each team’s strength of schedule. We’re told that this team has an easy schedule next season and is therefore likely to improve, while that team has a hard schedule next season and is therefore facing an uphill battle.
And the reality is, all that talk is meaningless.
There are obvious problems with strength of schedule, and the most obvious is that it’s based entirely on each team’s 2017 records. But 2017 record is simply not a great predictor of 2018 performance. Teams fluctuate. Some get better, some get worse. Some were better than their 2017 records suggest, some were worse. Teams regress toward the mean. Teams add and lose free agents. Teams draft players who may or may not contribute as rookies. Key players get hurt in training camp and the preseason. The fact that a team was 11-5 in 2017 tells us very little about whether that team will be a tough opponent in 2018.
After all, a year ago, if you were calculating a team’s strength of schedule for the 2017 season, and that team had a game scheduled against the Eagles in 2017, you would’ve said that contributed to an easy schedule: In 2016, the Eagles were a 7-9 team that finished in last place. And then the Eagles were the No. 1 NFC seed in 2017 and won the Super Bowl.
Looking ahead at this time last year, you also would’ve said the Rams and Jaguars were easy opponents, while the Cowboys, Giants and Raiders were tough opponents. Wrong, wrong and wrong.
For that matter, even within a season, the strength of any given opponent can vary wildly based on when you catch that opponent: Playing the 49ers when Jimmy Garoppolo was their starting quarterback was a lot harder than playing the 49ers when Brian Hoyer was their starting quarterback. Playing the Packers when Aaron Rodgers was their starting quarterback was a lot harder than playing the Packers when Brett Hundley was their starting quarterback. And there’s simply no way to know today which team will be changing quarterbacks nine months from now.
Warren Sharp of Sharp Football Analysis has thoroughly researched strength of schedule and found that the winning percentage of a team’s opponents last year is virtually meaningless in assessing a team’s actual strength of schedule this year. It’s simply not a useful statistic.
So while a look ahead at the schedule might seem like something interesting to analyze in the offseason, your analysis had better be a lot more detailed than just adding up the 2017 wins and losses of a team’s 2018 opponents if you want to find any value in it at all.