NFL turns to Sloan Sports Analytics Conference researchers to balance schedules

Yahoo Sports Contributor
Yahoo Sports

A lot of NFL fans likely think the league’s schedule is biased against them. Maybe they face a lot of teams coming off byes or have too many road games in a row.

Some of that may just be in fans’ heads, but a group of researchers at the University of Buffalo conducted a study on NFL schedules to test that. Lo and behold, it showed that their Buffalo Bills faced a much harder schedule than most teams.

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After presenting their findings at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in 2015, they caught the attention of the NFL, enough so that they have been helping out the league as they roll out their 2019 schedule this week.

As outlined in Kevin Seifert’s story, the NFL agreed to a three-year research grant last November that will be spearheaded by the group’s lead researcher Mark Karwan, Ph.D.

What makes an NFL schedule unfair?

NFL schedules aren’t completely made from scratch each year; each team’s opponents are already set. Teams play their divisional opponents twice, one other division in their conference, one division in the other conference and the other two teams in their conference who finished in the same spot in their division.

However, that still leaves a near infinite number of schedules. As noted in Seifert’s story, Karwan estimated that there are more possible schedules (10 to the power of 300) than there are atoms in the universe (10 to the power of 80).

Karwan found three key factors that led to imbalanced schedules in this multiverse of possibilities. First, it’s important for teams to play a similar number of opponents coming off byes or Thursday night games. Second, it’s important to make sure teams don’t have too many road games clustered together. And third, it’s key to avoid road trips following Monday night road games.

The NFL reportedly agreed to a three-year research grant with University of Buffalo researchers to improve their schedules. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
The NFL reportedly agreed to a three-year research grant with University of Buffalo researchers to improve their schedules. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

What did the researchers find?

The University of Buffalo group focused on the project in part because they felt the Bills had been slighted. During the 2015 season alone, Buffalo played five different games against teams coming off byes or Thursday night games, which led the team site to write the following:

“It’s very difficult to call the NFL a league of parity when there’s one team with half of their division games against clubs with extra time to rest and prepare, while another in the same division has none. The league simply has to do better.”

The trend goes back further because Karwan found that between 2003 and 2012, the Bills faced 14 opponents coming off byes — well above the league average. Things were even more unfair in the NFC South, where the Atlanta Falcons faced a league-worst 18 such opponents, compared to just four for the Carolina Panthers.

Karwan identified a strategy that would help reduce the number of unfair games in the schedule by 20 percent. While it’s unclear how much power his group has in the decision-making for the 2019 schedule, you can keep an eye out for more parity in rest and road games.

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