AJ Mansour: Strength of Schedule (in May) is a Joke [Exclusive]
So the NFL schedule has been released and with nothing else to analyze or talk about right now, we’re all fawning or freaking out over the Vikings strength of schedule.
On one hand, there’s a lot of good players, more specifically young good players that the Vikings will see for the first time this season that add a layer of intrigue to the team’s schedule. That’s fun, it’s exciting and it will certainly help sell intrigue. And then on the other hand there’s the crowd that is freaking out over the perceived Strength of Schedule (SoS) being the 5th most difficult throughout the league.
For my dollar, we all need to take a step back, a deep breath and stop worrying about anything that happened in the NFL last year, and that’s what SoS is solely based off of.
Now this isn’t a blanket statement, there are clearly good teams and bad teams in the league and it’s rare that those teams flip completely season-to-season, but it does happen.
Take the 2015 to 2016 Carolina Panthers as an example. This is the one that will always stick out in my head and has pushed me to not care a lick about SoS each year when the new schedules are released. The 2015 Carolina Panthers, led by Cam Newton, went all the way to the Super Bowl where they entered the game as 5.5 point favorites but were ultimately dominated by the Denver Broncos losing Super Bowl 50 by two scores. The following season, the Panthers were on the Vikings schedule and headlined what we all thought was going to be a “really tough schedule” when it was first released.
But things happened.
The 2016 Carolina Panthers wet the bed entirely, losing 5 of their first 6 games (including a 22-10 loss to the Vikings) and they finished the season 6-10. In this case, Cam Newton wasn’t injured, there wasn’t dramatic turnover, they just stunk that next season. Whatever clicked in 2015 wasn’t working in 2016?
This is my case study for why we shouldn’t get worked up when a difficult schedule is dropped, but there are countless examples in recent history alone that would back up this general theory as well…
2015 Atlanta Falcons
In 2015 the Atlanta Falcons were served what was supposed to be the easiest schedule in the league. Their opponents that season combined for a .410 winning percentage the season before, but the Falcons finished 8-8 and were on the outside looking in at the NFL Playoffs.
2017 Indianapolis Colts
In 2017, it was the Colts who were handed the easiest slate but an injury to Andrew Luck hijacked what was supposed to be a good season for Indy and the Colts only won four games that season.
2019 Washington *Football Team*
Two years later, it was Washington blessed with the easiest schedule but all they could do with it was muster up the league’s second-worst record finishing at 3-13.
You’ll see some trends with the teams that seem to drop dramatically. Sometimes it’s an injury, sometimes you lose someone to free agency but sometimes you just can’t figure it out. Year-to-year in the NFL could be a night and day difference. That’s why we don’t freak out.
In fact, there’s even data that would lead you to believe that having a difficult regular season schedule helps your team get battle tested and find better success in the playoffs, granted they’re a competitive team to begin with.
In roughly the past two decades, half of all Super Bowl winners had a SoS in the top third of the league. We’ve seen teams squeak into the playoffs and make a Wild Card weekend run all the way to the title, we’ve also seen teams coming off of a BYE in the playoffs drop their first game in a divisional round.
All of this to say, SoS doesn’t matter nearly as much as we make it out to matter in May when the schedule is first released.
Yes, the Vikings opponents have a combined 2020 record of 144-127-1, a .531 winning percentage giving them the 5th most difficult schedule on paper…but that last part is key.
Most teams haven’t even gathered as a full squad yet. No teams have proven rookies added into the mix. Nobody knows where the next catastrophic injury will occur. None of us know which teams overperformed (or underperformed) a year ago. We’re all just operating on semi-informed hunches.
So take a deep breath and do your best to assess the Vikings roster alone to decide whether or not they’ll be competitive. Leave it there and wait for it all to play out. If it is difficult, maybe that’s a good thing for this team…you know the whole trial by fire idea!