Saturday, August 20, 2011

About that schedule...

Today at breakfast, I was looking at the 1965 NFL season on Striking find of the day: The Cleveland Browns that year made it to the NFL championship game, losing to the Packers 23-12. The Packers, of course, had a winning record that year - and they were the ONLY Browns opponent to do so! That's right: all 14 of the Browns' opponents had finished the year 7-7 or worse.

How did this happen? The NFL back then, pre-merger with the AFL, had 14 teams, seven in the East division and seven in the West. Teams played 14 games, 12 in their own division and just two against the opposite division. The standings show the West as the much stronger division that year. Since there were so few interdivision games, this means the West must have really slaughtered the East in those games, so I checked. Yep, there were 14 interdivision games in the NFL in 1965, and the East won only one of them. The Browns were the only East team to finish above 7-7, and their two opponents from the West were the Vikings (7-7) and the Rams (4-10), both of whom the Browns lost to. Nor were the Browns particularly dominant when they did win. They scored just 38 points more than they allowed, though that is skewed by the late-season 42-7 loss to the Rams, where the Browns had already clinched the East and were playing backups. Even with that, this is an 11-3 team playing a historically wimpy schedule and performing more like a 9-5 team while doing it. Had the Browns played in the West, I bet they'd have struggled to finish .500.


  1. If you look at the 1972 Miami Dolphins season, the results are similarly striking:

    1. Chiefs (8-6)
    2. Oilers (1-13)
    3. Vikings (7-7)
    4. Jets (7-7)
    5. Chargers (4-9-1)
    6. Bills (4-9-1)
    7. Colts (5-9)
    8. Bills (4-9-1)
    9. Patriots (3-11)
    10. Jets (7-7)
    11. Cardinals (4-9-1)
    12. Patriots (3-11)
    13. Giants (8-6)
    14. Colts (5-9)

    Combined total: 70-122-4 (.367, counting ties as a half win/loss). 5 games vs opponents with .500+ records, with best being 8-6. Pretty damn weak for a 'perfect season'! If they would have had a .500 schedule, there might be about 38 more unopened champagne bottles in the world.... it would be interesting to see if schedules have been made more equitable over the years, but for the 2011 season, based on opponents' combined winning % from the previous season, every team's schedule is between .441 and .555, which seems pretty reasonable.... all within 7-9 and 9-7 for average opponent record. Though that will likely change as teams' performances invariably diverge from those of the previous year... an interesting issue.

  2. Here's an interesting article by ESPN:

    (you can page on further through the list to see the rest of the top 80)

    I haven't crunched the numbers (and don't plan to), but notice that the vast majority of SB participants had pretty weak (<.500) schedules... so it seems that a weak schedule is, if not a prerequisite, certainly a helpful factor for playoff success. I guess everyone needs a little luck on their side, right?

  3. Thanks for the link...there is a mild built-in statistical bias to watch out for there - that is to say, part of the sub-.500 record of a SB winner's schedule is explained by those teams having to play the (usually) very strong SB winner themselves. Even with that, the point holds though. Luck is a big part of it, with schedules, with injuries, with odd bounces in close games.

    Absolutely right about the '72 Dolphins schedule being very weak. Schedules weren't keyed to the previous season's performance then, as far as I know; parity scheduling arrived with the 16-game schedule. Though it's mostly gone now - only two games per team per year are determined by the previous season's finish. Also, the AFC in the 70s was very imbalanced - in the early part of the decade, perhaps even more so since it was still close to the merger/AFL days and the NFC would have retained the overall talent advantage. The Dolphins, Steelers and Raiders ran the AFC in the 70s. (True, the Cowboys, Rams and Vikings ruled the 70s NFC almost as harshly.)