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Thursday, Jun 21, 2018
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Why the Buccaneers’ 2018 schedule isn’t as bad as it seems

Saints, Eagles, Steelers.

Three games against three playoff teams to open the NFL season.

Who in the league scheduling office did the Buccaneers tick off?

What an injustice!

Or not.

Maybe the league did the Bucs a favor.

Would you rather face the Saints, Eagles and Steelers during the middle of the season or early in the season?

My take? Bring them on. The Saints will be without Mark Ingram (suspension). The Eagles might be without Carson Wentz (knee injury). As for the Steelers, Gramps Roethlisberger will be dropping hints about retirement, probably.

We do it every year. We pore over the schedule and we think about what a team did last season. The Saints went 11-5. The Eagles went 13-3. The Steelers went 13-3. L, L and L.

But what did those teams look like early in the season? The Saints started 0-2. The Eagles started 3-1, but they needed a 61-yard field goal to beat the Giants. The Steelers started 3-1, but they barely beat the Browns. All together, these teams easily could have been .500 after the first quarter of the season.

The lesson here is that we might as well forget what happened last season. It doesn’t carry over.

Those strength-of-schedule articles you’ve seen floating around? Useless. Don’t pay any attention to them. The math behind them is astoundingly lacking in rigor. It’s basic addition and division. Add up opponents’ win percentages from last season and divide them by 16 to get an average. That’s it.

That method might be valid if a team’s win-loss record truly reflected its performance, but far too often it does not. With all due respect to Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells, a team is NOT what its record says it is. Football isn’t just a game of skill; it’s also a game of luck and random bounces.

There are better ways to measure the difficulty of a team’s schedule. In the next few paragraphs, I’ll discuss two of them.

Up first is a model that Ty Schalter wrote about in a recent FiveThirtyEight article. His proposal: Stop using wins and losses from the previous season. Use points scored and points allowed instead. They’re a better predictor of future wins.

Using points, we can calculate a team’s “expected” win percentage. Let’s use the Bucs as an example. They scored 335 points last season and allowed 382. To get their expected win percentage, plug the point totals into this formula:

(points scored ^ 2.37) / (points scored ^ 2.37 + points allowed ^ 2.37)

The answer: .425. By this measure, the Bucs actually underachieved last season. They probably were closer to a 7-9 team than they were to a 5-11 team.

If we use expected 2017 win percentages instead of actual 2017 win percentages to determine 2018 strength of schedule, the Bucs’ slate gets easier, but only slightly. The Steelers see a bigger difference; their schedule goes from easy to difficult. That’s mainly the result of every team in their division finishing below expectation last season, especially the Browns.

Here are the strength of schedule rankings for all 32 teams. The “Traditional SOS” column is based on opponents’ actual 2017 win percentages. The “New SOS” column is based on opponents’ expected 2017 win percentages.

Team Traditional SOS Rank New SOS Rank
Saints .535 2 .526 1
Cardinals .520 8 .524 2
Browns .523 5 .521 3
Panthers .512 12 .520 4
Bucs .531 4 .518 5
Giants .520 8 .516 6
Steelers .477 25 .512 7
Packers .539 1 .512 8
Chiefs .492 19 .510 9
Rams .523 5 .510 10
Seahawks .523 5 .509 11
49ers .500 15 .501 12
Cowboys .500 15 .500 13
Bills .496 18 .500 14
Lions .535 2 .499 15
Falcons .509 13 .499 16
Broncos .477 25 .498 17
Vikings .520 8 .497 18
Eagles .492 19 .496 19
Washington .504 14 .494 20
Bears .520 8 .494 21
Bengals .473 29 .489 22
Titans .465 31 .486 23
Raiders .473 29 .485 24
Colts .484 22 .478 25
Dolphins .500 15 .478 26
Ravens .488 21 .474 27
Chargers .480 24 .468 28
Jets .477 25 .458 29
Patriots .484 22 .456 30
Texans .453 32 .452 31
Jaguars .477 25 .450 32

Chase Stuart of Football Perspective used neither wins nor points in developing his strength of schedule model. He used the point spreads from Las Vegas sports book CG Technology to develop ratings for each team.

According to his calculations, the Bucs, who are underdogs in all but three games, have the eighth-most difficult schedule. Their average opponent will be 0.27 points above average.

Team Opp pts above avg Rank
Cardinals 0.74 1
Chiefs 0.44 2
Seahawks 0.43 3
Washington 0.40 4
Lions 0.40 5
Giants 0.29 6
Browns 0.29 7
Bucs 0.27 8
Rams 0.27 9
Saints 0.22 10
Bears 0.21 11
Bills 0.19 12
Eagles 0.11 13
Vikings 0.10 14
Colts 0.00 15
Broncos -0.03 16
Dolphins -0.08 17
Broncos -0.08 18
49ers -0.08 19
Cowboys -0.09 20
Jets -0.12 21
Titans -0.13 22
Steelers -0.15 23
Falcons -0.16 24
Bengals -0.18 25
Jaguars -0.27 26
Packers -0.28 27
Ravens -0.35 28
Chargers -0.40 29
Raiders -0.44 30
Patriots -0.71 31
Texans -0.79 32

The NFL season never unfolds the way we think it’s going to. We were told last year that the Eagles would play the NFC’s third-most difficult schedule. It turned out to be the easiest. We were told the year before that the Falcons would play the NFL’s most difficult schedule. It turned out to be about average. Those schedules didn’t stop either team from reaching the Super Bowl.

Making predictions is difficult, but it’s even more difficult when we’re basing them on bad information.

Statistics in this report are from Pro Football Reference and Football Perspective. Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected]. Follow @tometrics.

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