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What is the Significance of Pre-season Strength of Schedule

The rise of social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter and the launch of the NFL Network have helped foster an environment where the off-season news cycle is every bit as fast and furious (Part 6, in theaters May 22nd) as the in-season frenzy. The positives of such an environment are obvious: die hard football fans will hardly notice a difference between a random Thursday in February and a Thursday in October. They'll get more than their fair share of the latest news, notes, and analysis for their favorite team. Breaking down free agency leads to breaking down the draft, which leads us to discussing training camp. Before you know it, we're back to getting our Sunday Fix.

This fast-paced news cycle has negatives, as well. The biggest downside, in my mind, is that it forces writers to create talking points, often times out of unimportant or meaningless data. The latest example of this came last week, when the NFL released their team-by-team strength of schedules for 2013, causing writers, national and local alike, to dissect and discuss the information.

Now, don't get me wrong, on some level it makes sense. Before the last piece of confetti had dropped on the Superdome carpet, NFL experts were already being asked to make their early picks for Super Bowl 48. The easiest way to make that prediction is to make an educated guess at who will make the playoffs. And some might think the easiest way to determine next year's playoff participants is to look at who has the easiest schedule.

While that's a good theory, recent results show that pre-season strength of schedule is not a good predictor of playoff teams. Here are the pre-season numbers for 2011 and 2012. In both years, 6 teams with a top-16 SoS and 6 teams with a bottom-16 SoS made the playoffs. And in 2010, 5 of the 6 AFC playoff teams had top-16 schedules in terms of difficulty.

So that's a scientific look at the issue. What about the more general "common sense" approach to the issue? The Super Bowl just ended. Really, there are only one or two things that have to happen before these teams starting playing again… such as free agency, the draft, and training camps. Rosters should remain roughly equal, right?

Entering the 2012-2013 season, teams playing the Colts (2-14 in 2011), Vikings (3-13), Redskins (5-11), and Seahawks (7-9) would have had "easier" schedules. Three of those teams underwent major overhauls of their rosters, and the 2012 records for those teams read (respectively): 11-5, 10-6, 10-6, 11-5.  And the opposite was true for teams who would face the Steelers (12-4 in 2011), Lions (10-6), Titans (9-7), and Cardinals (8-8). The 2012 records of those 4 teams? 8-8, 4-12, 6-10, and 5-11.

And roster changes aren't the only moves that make these pre-seaon SoS numbers meaningless. The Eagles (4-12 in 2012), Cardinals (5-11 in 2012), Bills (6-10), Chiefs (2-14), Browns (5-11), and Jaguars (2-14), who factor heavily into certain teams having "easier" schedules, will all be lead by new coaches – and in some cases GMs, as well – in the coming season. It's impossible to know just how good (or bad) these teams will be until they play a few games.

Strength of schedule talk is interesting. It gives football fans something to discuss and debate in the boring off-season, and bringing up schedules and playoffs gives us the illusion that the season is right around the corner. But in the end it's also meaningless. So let's fill the off-season with more substantial topics, like cheerleader auditions.

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