The release of the 2009 NFL schedule on Tuesday has brought with it many questions from fans.
Why are the Cowboys featured in six primetime, nationally televised games?
How, after last season’s implosion, did the Browns get back on Monday Night Football?
Is the NBC Football Night in America line up of games superior to ESPN’S MNF line up?
While the surface of the heated discussions focuses on what teams will be on and when, there are some deeper issues surrounding the 2009 schedule. You will find little argument against the NFL being the country’s most popular and profitable sports league.
Yet, even the best have a few hiccups from time to time. Here are three glaring setbacks with the 2009 schedule.
1.) An NFC South team loses a home game for the second season in a row.
The London game is a novel idea, but there are major issues in its execution. Saints’ coach Sean Payton was quick to call out the league last year, despite beating the Chargers in Wembley Stadium. The league has taken some measure to ensure fairness between the two teams playing.
Both Tampa Bay and New England will host games the week prior to London, both will have a bye the week following, and both will be at home when they resume play in Week Nine.
Yet, the obvious problem with this year’s game is that Tampa Bay is considered the “home” team. This marks the second consecutive year that an NFC South team will lose a home game—in 2008 the Saints were the “home” team.
With eight divisions, you would think that the NFL might do a little more to create equity when selecting the teams for the London game.
Now in its third year of existence, the match up has or will feature two NFC South teams (New Orleans, 2008; Tampa Bay, 2009), two AFC East teams (Miami, 2007; New England, 2009), one NFC East team (New York, 2007), and one AFC West team (San Diego, 2008). Something has to be done to include teams from other divisions.
I do not know much about the inner working of the league scheduling office, but something tells me that it cannot be incredibly difficult to spread the participation in this game out more equitably.
2.) What did the Falcons do to deserve this?
At first glance, the Falcons’ schedule appears to be just another tough schedule that is the result of the cross-divisional rotation used by the NFL in determining non-divisional games.
The Falcons, who not only have to play NFC South division foes New Orleans, Tampa Bay, and Carolina twice (remember, the NFC South did not have a team below .500 last season), draw the AFC East and NFC East in the rotation - two of the most competitive divisions in 2008.
If that isn’t bad enough, with a closer look, you can see that the Falcons’ road to the postseason is undeniably bumpier than any other team in the league.
“How so?” you might ask.
The Falcons have the daunting task of facing four teams coming off bye weeks. That means that a quarter of the Falcons’ schedule will be played against teams with an extra week’s preparation (not counting Week One).
On top of that, Atlanta has its bye week during Week Four (the first week for byes), and finishes the season with 12 straight games. Two of the four games against bye-week teams come back-to-back in Weeks Six and Seven.
A road game on Monday night against New Orleans is sandwiched in between those weeks and a Week Nine match-up against rested Washington. The football gods (or the league office) surely seem like they want to make sure last year’s success wasn’t a fluke.
But Atlanta isn’t the only victim of this scheduling faux pas. Four teams (Denver, Jacksonville, Baltimore, and Tennessee) face three teams coming off bye-weeks, while four more (New Orleans, Detroit, St. Louis, and Houston) face two teams.
The most perplexing thing about this scheduling issue, however, is that nearly half the teams (15 in all) will not play a single game against a team coming off a bye. In a league of 32 teams, such disproportionment raises a red flag—especially when if you look at not only what teams, but what divisions benefit, and are hurt worst, from this anomaly.
Worst hit: AFC South
The AFC South teams play eight games against teams coming off a bye week. The peculiar thing here though is that those eight game are divided between three teams—Indianapolis is one of the 15 teams that does not face a bye-week team.
That means Jacksonville, Houston, and Tennessee are playing one-quarter of the league following its bye week. Absurd.
Honorable Mention: NFC South
Atlanta, as already established, plays a whopping four games against bye-week teams while division rival New Orleans faces two. Tampa Bay adds to the total with one making it seven games in all for the NFC South against teams coming off bye weeks. Carolina escapes without having to play a single bye-week opponent.
Most Benefited: AFC East
Total number of opponents coming off a bye week: ONE. That’s right. Between the four AFC East teams, only Miami plays a rested foe. New England, Buffalo, and New York are all spared the task of having to deal with that extra preparation.
Honorable Mention: AFC North
While the Ravens must face three bye-week opponents throughout the season, they are the only AFC North team that has to face even one. Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Cincinnati do not play any teams coming off bye weeks.
Honorable Mention (II): NFC East
Dallas, New York, and Washington each have to deal with one bye-week opponent, while Philadelphia has none.
3.) The scheduling formula does not clearly single-out wild-card teams.
One of my biggest issues with the NFL scheduling formula in whole is that, while it great for determining division winners, an awkward whole exists when singling out wild-card teams.
Within a division, teams play six divisional games, plus four games against a division within conference, plus four more games against a division out of conference. That equals 14 games against like opponents.
When teams play that many games against similar competition, then the better record usually indicates the better team.
But the same is not true when comparing wild-card teams from separate divisions. In that case, two teams could have no common opponents, and one team could have an arguably easier schedule than another team with an equal record.
Here’s an example:
Let’s hypothesize and consider two AFC teams—one that finished 10-6 and another who finished 9-7. The 10-6 team is from the AFC North. That means their non-divisional schedule included teams from the NFC North and the AFC West.
The 9-7 team is from the AFC East. That means their non-divisional schedule included teams from the NFC South and the AFC South.
By the record alone, the team from the AFC North performed better. But is record an accurate means of measuring which team is better. The team from the AFC East would have played arguably better competition on its way to a 9-7 record, while the AFC North team would have played the four worst teams from 2008.
When you bear this in mind, the 10-6 record does not seem as convincing.
Consider a similar scenario. The same teams from above both finish 10-6 and played each other. The AFC North team won, and therefore wins the tiebreaker. Should that one game trump the total body of work?
This is the problem with determining wildcards—there is no accurate and reliable measuring stick for comparing teams from separate divisions.
By addressing these issues in future scheduling, the NFL could make what is already considered the best American professional sports league even better.