By now, we all know that the reason the Saints didn’t make the playoffs last season was because they had an unfair amount of games against teams coming off their bye week or Thursday night games.
Well, maybe that wasn’t the only reason. But according to research done by a group from the University of Buffalo, the NFL’s reputation for seeking parity in everything, including scheduling, doesn’t always hold up to scrutiny.
“Probably every team has some sort of disadvantage,” said Dr. Murat Kurt, an assistant professor in the university’s department of industrial systems and engineering and a co-advisor on the project. “Some had more; some had less. But for some teams, they show up more often over the years and never even out.”
Naturally, Dr. Kurt and his colleagues were suspicious that that was especially true for their beloved Buffalo Bills, who haven’t been in the playoffs this century.
So when Kyle Cunningham, a 2014 UB graduate, suggested they take a look at the data and see what might be done to fix the problem instead of doing their usual work on such trivial matters as managing resources and revenues — particularly in the health services field — everyone was on board.
And, sure enough, since 2002, the Bills have played more rested opponents — 26 — than any other team. (Atlanta has played more teams coming off byes — 17 — but that’s the Falcons’ problem.)
So to combat this injustice, they came up with some light reading called “Alleviating Competitive Imbalance in NFL Schedules: An Integer-Programming Approach,” which they entered in the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference research paper competition.
It didn’t win; ones on the art of framing by catchers to achieve more called strikes and advanced defensive metrics for NBA teams did. (Hopefully the Pelicans studied that last one before Monday’s playoff game.) But they did receive the Fans Award from ESPN, whose FiveThirtyEight division has never met an analytical study it didn’t like.
And on top of that, the NFL was interested enough in the study to provide insider data to the group in its quest to come up with a more equitable scheduling formula for the future.
Whether the league actually used any of the suggestions in formulating the 2015 schedule will become apparent Tuesday evening when it is revealed.
“There were some things like broadcast considerations, which gave us a more realistic look through the eyes of the NFL,” Kurt said. “The owners have their own requests that figure into it, too.”
Obviously coming up with the NFL schedule is a complicated process, although it actually pales by comparison with baseball, basketball and hockey.
But in just the NFL operation, Howard Katz, the league’s scheduling czar, and Michael North, senior director of broadcasting, have to deal with no less than 27 rules, ranging from the obvious (each team plays each division opponent twice) to the obscure (the Bay Area teams cannot both be on the road on the same weekend more than three times).
The NFL computer creates about 140,000 potential schedules, of which 150 are reviewed by hand. And then the TV networks get involved, a process made more complicated now because every team plays a Thursday night game — thus creating the rest-time discrepancies.
Last year, the Saints played three straight times against teams either coming off a Thursday game or a bye week: Cincinnati, Baltimore and Pittsburgh. That was second in the league only to Buffalo’s four.
The Saints lost to the Bengals and Ravens and managed to hang on for a 35-32 victory against the Steelers.
“The players and coaches don’t like the Thursday games, but they’re here to stay,” Kurt said. “Our solution is to have as many teams as possible playing their Thursday games after a bye week. Since they then have 10 days before their next game, that creates another mini-bye. The league should move some of those late-season Thursday games to Saturday to reduce the number of short weeks as well. They started doing that last year, so that should continue.”
Kurt added that his hope is that, if the league doesn’t adopt his group’s schedule-creating software (which has no team playing more than two rested opponents in a season), it at least does more to eliminate scheduling anomalies such as last year, when Tampa Bay played only four home games over a 13-week period. Small wonder the Bucs finished 2-14.
And, of course, the initial look at the schedule can be misleading. Last year, the Saints didn’t meet a 2013 playoff team until Green Bay in Week 8. But by the time they played that game, they were 2-4.
All Kurt and his group are asking for is a fair shake — just like they see Bill Belichick and his New England Patriots getting every year.
“Their time as a dynasty is coming to an end,” Kurt said. “We’ve got Rex Ryan now.”