After analyzing the elements that most benefit teams, one thing is clear with the NFL scheduling process: the NFL has not paid enough attention over the last decade to inequalities. Specifically, there are many inequalities related to actual execution of scheduling including player rest, coaching prep time, and distribution of primetime games.

The reasoning behind the NFL’s schedule is to create a competitive balance. For that reason, years in advance it is known the two divisions a team will face (one in-conference, one out of conference). And these rotate and cycle, allowing every division to play another complete division once every four years. It is also for that reason that if a team finishes in last place in the division one year, it will play the other last-place finishers of the divisions in the same conference the very next year.

Beyond those basic principles, the NFL is a business and it tries to keep things “fair enough” so that it can maximize its prized possession: TV revenue.

Building the NFL schedule is an annual chore and automation has enhanced that process in recent years, particularly in 2020. But even with so much work put into the schedule, it doesn’t guarantee fairness for all 32 teams.

In fact, a thorough investigation shows there is a massive issue with regard to fairness in the NFL schedule over the last decade.

It is such a glaring issue that it appears unlikely the NFL performed an analysis in this manner, or it would have ensured there was not such imbalance.

In a league so set on the appearance of equal treatment for all 32 teams, it is impossible to look at the results of this investigation and think the NFL is trying their best to be fair to all teams when scheduling of games.

Before we dive in, there are a few caveats to understand as it relates to the game results for this analysis:

Over a ten-year span, players and coaches rotate and bad teams can get better and then return to mediocrity or worse. Great teams with solid quarterback play and coaching can be dominant almost regardless of situation due to edges over opponent. As such, I won’t focus on league-wide averages in terms of the end-result of individual scheduling variables.

Instead we should look at each from the big picture perspective: 

Is an imbalance of a particular scheduling variable inherently “fair” or could it result in an advantage or disadvantage if taken to an extreme?

Secondly, there is nothing we can do as to where a team is located. West coast teams have more travel. Has the NFL made measures to aide these teams when making trips to the East coast? Recently, yes. But because the opponents each year are automated and outside of the NFL’s control entirely, I won’t factor in travel to this analysis.

Scheduling Variables

The scheduling variables we will focus on fall into two areas: preparation/rest and primetime games.

Preparation/Rest

This can be divided into the following categories:

Opponent days to prepare for a game: the standard gap between games is a week. Occasionally teams have more or less time between games. The two advantages gained by more time between games are added rest for players and added preparation for coaches and players.

  • Example: the opponent played last Thursday and the other team played Sunday. They meet the following Sunday. The team that played Thursday has more time to rest and prep, which should allow for an advantage.
  • Real impact: over the last decade, one team has played 41 games when an opponent had over a week to prepare and just 17 games when an opponent had less than a week to prepare (-24 games). Meanwhile, another team has played 31 opponents off of short rest and just 23 opponents with extra rest (+8 games).

More or less rest than your opponent:  similar to the above, but factors a team’s own rest in as well and then computes which team has more time to prepare.

  • Example: the opponent is off a bye and the team in question played on Monday night. The team had a short week whereas the opponent had two weeks to rest and prep.
  • Real impact: over the last decade, one team has played 43 games with less rest than its opponents, while another team has played just 18 games with less rest than his opponents. There is one team with a net of +14 games with more rest and another with a net of -12 games, a swing of 26 games between the two teams.

Short week road games: a very disadvantageous situation where a team must travel to play an opponent and must do so without on less rest and with less prep than typically afforded

  • Example: A team played on the road on Thursday night after a Sunday game or on the road on Sunday after a Monday night game.
  • Real impact: over the last decade, one team has played 16 short week road games whereas another team has played just two.

Off of a road Sunday night or Monday night game: regardless of whether a team played home or away the following week, anytime a team had to play a night game and then travel back home will impact its schedule to some degree the following week. It impacts player rest and rehab schedules and impacts coach and player preparation.

  • Example: A team played on the road Monday night and must travel back home and prepare for a Sunday game on a short week.
  • Real impact: over the last decade, one team has played 22 games off of a road Sunday night or road Monday night game. Meanwhile, another team hasn’t played a single game off of a road Sunday or Monday night game.

Negated bye weeks: teams should receive two benefits from a bye week.  The first is their own ability to receive rest, rehab and prep.  The second is their ability to have an edge in those benefits as compared to the opponent they next face.  When Team A returns from a bye to play Team B, but Team B was also on a bye the prior week (or played Thursday the week before), it negates Team A’s edge in rest, rehab and prep.  

  • Example: A team returned from a bye and instead of facing an opponent that played the prior Sunday, they play a team who also had 14 days of rest and prep.
  • Real impact: over the last decade, while the average team sees 1.8 negated bye out of ten, one team has seen six of its ten bye weeks negated (60%).  Meanwhile, seven teams haven’t had a single one of their ten bye weeks negated.

Four games in 17 days: playing four in 17 days is achieved by playing Monday night, a short week into Sunday, another Sunday followed by a short week into Thursday.  It is not easy playing two short rest weeks out of three weeks between four games.  It is rare the league forces such a grind onto a team, but it has an imbalance in the way in which it forced these games.

  • Example: A team typically has three full weeks of rest between four games on Sunday.  But when a team plays on a Monday and Thursday within three weeks, two of their three rest weeks become shortened.
  • Real impact: over the last decade, one team has played four games in 17 days on three different occasions.  Meanwhile, 14 teams haven’t had to play four games in 17 days even once.

Primetime

Primetime can be divided into the following categories:

Monday night games: while each environment is different, home crowds tend to be at their peak for Primetime games, and the standalone primetime games on Monday nights are the crème de la crème. While it’s absolutely understandable that some teams should get more Monday night games due to attracting the largest amount of TV dollars possible, sending certain teams on the road regularly while allowing others to play all of the Monday night games at home isn’t equitable.

  • Real impact: over the last decade, one team has played on Monday night twice at home and nine times on the road. Meanwhile, another team has played six times at home and zero on the road.

Thursday night games: while not as heralded nor as likely to have a boost due to crowd influence, hosting Thursday night games provides a far larger benefit. The lack of travel for the home team allows for more rest, rehab, and coaching/player preparation. On an already short week, where little rest, rehab and prep is allowed, that means hosting the game makes each of those elements more magnified and the contribute an even larger percentage towards a level playing field.

  • Real impact: over the last decade, the Lions and Cowboys obviously receive massive benefit due  to Thanksgiving. But beyond those two teams, one team has played on Thursday night twice at home and seven times on the road. Meanwhile, another team has played eight times at home and only three on the road.

Net Weeknight games: as simple as it sounds, the net of Monday and Thursday night games.

  • Real impact: over the last decade, one team has hosted just six weeknight games and traveled to play 14 on the road (70% on the road). Meanwhile, another team has hosted 11 home weeknight games and traveled to play just three on the road (21% on the road).

Summary

These things matter. The NFL is a small sample size sport. Teams make or miss the playoffs based on performance in just 16 games. Coaches are fired and players are cut after bad seasons. Coaches are promoted and players receive tens of millions of dollars if they perform well.

Like most schedule analysis, teams ranking in the mid-range aren’t the focus. The extremes are things to take note of very closely.

And at the end of the day, if the goal is to provide as level a playing field possible, seeing the stories above with teams facing tremendous impediments to success based on schedule inequalities while other teams have a massive edge isn’t fair.

Whether those teams with the edge took advantage of the situation and won those games speaks to team and coaching competence, which is another discussion entirely and thus isn’t the focus.

The situation itself – the schedule variables – should be as balanced as possible to keep things as fair and equitable as possible.

After analyzing all the preparation, rest, and primetime scheduling variables listed above:

The following teams received the strongest overall benefit from the NFL schedule:

  1. Jacksonville Jaguars
  2. Arizona Cardinals
  3. Dallas Cowboys
  4. Carolina Panthers
  5. Detroit Lions

The following teams were impacted most negatively by the NFL’s scheduling inequalities:

  1. New York Giants
  2. Indianapolis Colts
  3. Philadelphia Eagles
  4. Chicago Bears
  5. Houston Texans

The most glaring takeaway should be with regard to the NFC East. The NFC East has two of the teams most negatively impacted by the NFL’s scheduling inequalities (Giants and Eagles) but also has one team that benefits most by the schedule, the Dallas Cowboys. That is extremely unfair and the effect will be further discussed below.

The complete rankings of all 32 teams:

Preparation/Rest

Looking only at situations that were the most inequitable as it related to preparation and rest:

The following teams received the strongest overall benefit from the NFL schedule:

  1. Jacksonville Jaguars
  2. Cleveland Browns
  3. Carolina Panthers
  4. Detroit Lions
  5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Chargers were +15 in games with a rest advantage, the most in the NFL. The Cowboys placed second in games with more net rest.

The Lions and Cowboys (due to Thanksgiving) played the fewest games on the road with short rest. But there are ways to make up for that. For example, the schedule makers could assign them to a game on the road on Sunday following a Monday night appearance.

The following teams were impacted most negatively by the NFL’s scheduling inequalities:

  1. Philadelphia Eagles
  2. New York Giants
  3. Indianapolis Colts
  4. Seattle Seahawks
  5. Chicago Bears

The Giants were -12 in games with a rest advantage. The Eagles have the second-worst ranking with a -11 net, and have played 44 opponents the last decade who had over a week to prepare. It was the most of any team in the NFL (avg of 29).

The inequality is glaring when considering these two teams play in the same division as the Dallas Cowboys, who have one of the strongest edges:

The Cowboys had more rest in a net of +10 games (#2 best) and played 5 short rest road games (#2 best).

The Giants had more rest in a net of -12 games (#1 worst) and played 13 short rest road games (#7 worst).

The Eagles had more rest in a net of -11 games (#2 worst) and played 14 short rest road games (#5 worst)

The Seattle Seahawks benefit from favorable edges in primetime games so they don’t rank as highly in the overall schedule inequality, but as it relates to prep and rest, they have drawn the short end of the stick quite frequently. They played 38 opponents with over a week to prepare vs just 18 with less time to prepare, a net of -20, and the second-worst differential of any team. Additionally, Seattle has played 13 short rest road games, tied for the third-most in the NFL.

Since publishing the first study, I chose to investigate two more variables:

  • negated bye weeks
  • four games in 17 days

Studying these created more bad news for the teams that already struggled in other rest and prep variables.  The Indianapolis Colts remarkable have seen six of their ten bye weeks negated the past decade.  Five of the six were negated because their opponent had the same exact bye week as they did.  The other one was negated by an opponent coming off Thursday night game and enjoying the benefit of a mini-bye.

This is completely unfair considering half of the NFL has seen zero or only one bye week in the last decade negated.

The Eagles, already having the least equitable schedule of the last decade prior to investigating these two new metrics, placed very poorly in both.

Philadelphia is the only team in the NFL to play four games in 17 days on three separate occasions in the last decade.  Nearly half the league (14 teams) haven’t done this once.  Additionally, the Eagles have seen three negated bye weeks the last decade, ranking well below average (1.8).

The Eagles are the only team in the NFL to place bottom-10 in every single one of the six prep and rest variables I reviewed over the last decade.  Meanwhile, ten teams placed top-10 in at least four of six variables (Jaguars, Browns, Panthers, Lions, Buccaneers, Chargers, Cardinals, Cowboys, Packers and Rams).

Complete rankings of all 32 teams based on prep and rest variables:

Impact of Preparation/Rest on Injury Rates

There are a number of issues with the NFL’s inequitable scheduling over the last decade.  Not only does it fly completely in the face of the notion of competitive balance, thus creating unfair edges to certain teams far too often, it also can result in certain teams sustaining higher injury rates.

Proper rehab and rest between games is essential for player health.  Injuries are extremely difficult to forecast and predict.  And much like great teams being able to win games despite the deck stacked against them, studying injury rates alone should not be the qualifying factor as to whether the NFL’s unfair scheduling practices should continue.  An unbiased view of each scheduling variable should be made, and the question asked as to whether an imbalance across the league is fair or could result in a disadvantage.

As it relates to injuries, I reviewed the last decade of adjusted games lost due to injury (a metric from Football Outsiders).

What we find is certainly eye-opening:

Two of the three teams most impacted by the NFL’s unfair scheduling of rest time (Giants and Colts) over the last decade were also two of the three most injured teams over the last decade.

Additionally, four of the five most injured teams over the last decade (Redskins, Giants, Colts and Patriots) all ranked as having top-10 worst rest situations:

  • Redskins = #1 most injured, #9 worst prep/rest ranking
  • Giants = #2 most injured, #2 worst prep/rest ranking
  • Colts = #3 most injured, #3 worst prep/rest ranking
  • Patriots = #5 most injured, #6 worst prep/rest ranking

Clearly, the teams with the most injuries tended to have some of the most unfair rest situations.

Primetime

Looking only at situations that were the most inequitable as it related to primetime games:

The following teams received the strongest overall benefit from the NFL schedule:

  1. Arizona Cardinals
  2. Jacksonville Jaguars
  3. Dallas Cowboys
  4. San Francisco 49ers
  5. Seattle Seahawks

While a team like the Cowboys clearly will play at home on Thursdays each year due to Thanksgiving, the NFL didn’t make any efforts to send them on the road for Monday night games (6 home, 4 road) like they did for a team like the Lions (4 home, 7 road).

The following teams were impacted most negatively by the NFL’s scheduling inequalities:

  1. Indianapolis Colts
  2. New York Giants
  3. Houston Texans
  4. Cleveland Browns
  5. Miami Dolphins

The Colts have had the unfortunate fate of playing 7 road games on Monday and 7 road games on Thursday to only 3 home games on Monday and 3 home games on Thursday. And as it relates to the NFC East, the Giants (-4 net Thursday home games), Redskins (-5 net Thursday home games) and Eagles (-1 net Thursday home game) all haven’t had any luck hosting games on Thursday, the most favorable time of any to host a game. Whereas the Cowboys have hosted 12, the most in the NFL, and are a net +9 (second best).

Complete rankings of all 32 teams based on primetime variables:

 

I firmly believe the NFL must modify its process as soon as possible to correct such unfair scheduling practices.

Importantly, it is not enough to over-correct in “year 2” to make up for prior year imbalance.  Players, coaches and teams change dramatically from one year to the next.  Poor performance arising from a lack of preparation or rest is enough to change the impression of players and coaches and result in jobs being lost.

Each year, all 32 teams should have the same shot at making the postseason and Super Bowl.  The NFL cannot pick their opponents, but the NFL can ensure that the timing of games is as equitable as possible.

And right now, that is not the case.

The league must balance the negative schedule situations among all 32 teams as best as possible, and do so within every single season.

 

For more in-depth NFL research and analysis like this, join our mailing list: