Sports Nut

The NFL’s Programmed Mediocrity

The Saints and the Eagles should waltz into the playoffs, after their wins last Sunday. A year ago, the Saints and the Eagles finished 3-13 and 5-11, respectively, making these two of the worst teams in the NFL. Now, they’re two of the best.

But the folks in Philadelphia and New Orleans aren’t the ones ready to crack open the bubbly. The people with the most to celebrate were at NFL headquarters in New York. The league office has achieved just what it set out to do when it made this season’s schedule. It has turned two mediocre teams into playoff contenders, simply by loading up their schedule with lousy opponents.

The NFL has weighted schedules in favor of bad teams for years, but it insists that upstarts, including the Saints and the Eagles, should be taken seriously. The league notes that only half the games teams play—those against opponents outside their division—are picked based on records from the prior year. The rest are played against division opponents. The weighted schedules, goes the NFL line, just create a few more exciting games during the regular season.

But there’s no denying that upstart teams benefit from weaker schedules. To show that they do, I took out a spreadsheet and a football almanac and looked at the teams that have made the playoffs since 1995. There are 60 of them, and they can be divided into two groups: those that made the playoffs the year before and those that had not. Interestingly, these groups are roughly even. Thirty-three teams made the cut in consecutive years; 27 did not.

On the surface, it appears that the NFL is right: Weighting does not give the newcomers—that is, the teams that had not made the playoffs the year before—an easier schedule. The teams that played against the 27 newcomers had an overall winning percentage of .467 in their 16 regular season games. The teams that played the other 33 playoff teams had an overall winning percentage of .489. In other words, newcomers’ opponents did almost as well during the regular season as the repeat teams’ foes. Looking at just the eight non-division games doesn’t turn up many differences either. The newcomers’ non-division foes had an overall winning percentage of .476 in the regular season; the repeats’ non-division foes had a winning percentage of .501. Again, the difference is not big enough to worry about.

But a closer look reveals that some of the upstarts really did get off easy. To show this, I calculated how much each of the 60 teams’ winning percentage rose—or fell—from the year before. Then, I compared that number to the strength of each team’s non-division schedule, as measured by opponents’ winning percentage. (To be precise, I ran something called Spearman’s Rank Test. Explaining why I did this is a statistics lesson that is best skipped.) What I found is a clear link between how much a team improves and how weak its non-division schedule is.

Now, this does not prove that teams improve dramatically simply because they play a weaker schedule. To prove that, you would have to look at every NFL team, and you would need more than a spreadsheet and a football almanac to do that. But this does prove that upstarts have it easy.

To see how, look at the 1998 Cardinals, who posted the fifth-best improvement among the 60 playoff teams. They did not play a single non-division game against a team with a winning record. Yet they went only 5-3 in non-division games. In fact, the Cardinals didn’t beat a single winning team in any of their 16 regular season games but squeaked into the playoffs anyway. Not surprisingly, they dropped to 6-10 last year, once most of the patsies were off their schedule.

The same thing seems to be happening to the two teams that improved most in the last five years—the Rams and the Colts. Both played joke schedules last year, especially when it comes to non-division games. Both ran up impressive win totals. And now both are major disappointments. Sure, the Rams and the Colts might still make the playoffs, but it is clear that they are not anywhere near as good as last year’s standings suggested.

And it is happening again this year. Sunday’s win moved the Saints into a first-place tie with the Rams. They can cinch a playoff slot by winning two of their last four games. They can thank some easy wins over the Chargers, the Bears, and the Cardinals for putting them in position.

The Eagles are in an even better spot. They lead the NFC East despite having beaten just two teams with winning records. And in their last three games, they play both the Browns and the Bengals—two more doormats. This time next year we’ll be talking about the disappointing Eagles, just as last year we talked about the Cardinals and this year, the Rams. Nothing would make the NFL happier.