Ever since Keith Olbermann returned to ESPN, he’s had a few memorable takedowns of NFL blowhards, whether it be Dan Snyder or Pete Prisco. With the arrival of the NFL schedule on Wednesday night, it was apparently mandatory for all producers of hot sports takes to have Something To Say about it. For the most part, the gripe was that the NFL tries too hard to manufacture an event out of what is basically an administrative task on the league’s part. That’s a fair criticism, even if some of those issuing it made a big deal about faulting fans who were still excited about the arrival of the schedule.
Olbermann, however, decided to take another tack. According to his argument, the NFL schedule is a problem because, he says, it basically plays a role in determining the eventual Super Bowl champion. This is because some teams have a harder schedule than others since we can’t have a balanced schedule; in other words, a schedule in which every team plays every other team once. Olbermann acknowledges the impracticality of this 31-game schedule based on the time it would take. Though it might also help his concussion-ranting bona fides to point out that it would almost certainly cripple players as well.
He goes on to rave about the insanity of a system that gives a 2013 division winner the supposed easiest schedule while giving a last-place team what appears to be the most difficult schedule.
This point, while seemingly damning, is based on highly flawed reasoning. You can’t evaluate the strength of schedule based on future opponents’ performance the previous season. The NFL varies too much from season to season. Going into the 2013 season, the Carolina Panthers appeared to have the most difficult strength of schedule based on 2012 records. The Panthers ended up having the 17th hardest strength of schedule in 2013. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers, projected to have the 17th hardest schedule, ended up with the most difficult one. Sure, some teams ended up near where they were projected – the Broncos were expected to have the easiest schedule and instead had the 7th easiest. The point is, the strength of schedule for any given season isn’t terribly predictive based on the finishes from the season before.
As an aside, Olbermann revisits how a flawed NFL scheduling system coupled with the lack of a playoff compromised the validity of some championships in the 1920s (!!!) because that really has a bearing on the sport of today.
About five minutes in the rant, a solution is finally offered: why doesn’t each team just play all the other teams in its own conference? While that’s closer to the balance scheduling ideal he champions, Olbermann undermines his own point by acknowledging that playing a specific team in September is almost certainly different than playing them in December. So now the order of schedule comes into play? How is a schedule maker supposed to structure on difficulty based on when a team might be peaking? Or when it’s healthy? That’s impossible to predict.
Do some teams have an easier row to hoe than others? Sure. The NFL’s scheduling system certainly isn’t perfect but it’s a system that operates as the most fair within the restrictions the sport places on it. And honestly, I’m willing to trade a little schedule balance for having divisional rivalries not having to wait for a Super Bowl matchup that might never come to see certain NFC teams play certain AFC squads.