Time to "Look at the Schedule"?

Renown sportswriter and television personality Woody Paige is famous for reiterating some variant of the phrase "look at the schedule" whenever he is asked to prognosticate. Though that approach has its critics, it is clear that his maxim is catching on. The release of the NFL schedule, for instance, has become something of an event in recent years. There is a certain appeal to parsing through a team's impending slate of games in an attempt to determine their potential for the upcoming season. Regardless of how accurately we might gauge its true talent, identify their strengths and weaknesses, and adjucate the schemes that they run: all that information is ultimately meaningless without context. And so, in the absence of actual games, we must turn our attention to the schedule in order to hopefully ascertain what it all truly means.

This process will always remain more art than science, but good research can help bridge that gap. Most observers usually rely on their gut for this sort of endeavor and the results of their work can therefore be quite biased or shallow. With so much information at our fingertips today, however, we can now dig deeper and thus arrive at more meaningful conclusions. Follow me below the fold as I attempt to navigate the pratfalls that typically plague these analyses and establish a foundation for its application to the 2010 Denver Broncos.

As always, I'm relying on you to ensure that I am going down the right path; one of the many benefits of writing for Mile High Report is that I can go down a rabbit hole like this and trust that the readership will make sure that I come out on the other side relatively unscathed. And so, without further ado, let us determine if and how we should "look at the schedule".

The Only Constant is Change

There's a famous saying that I'm sure you've all come across and it goes something along the lines of: "past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results". The thing about clichés like that one is that they often become trite only because they are both true and useful. In the case of projecting the performance of a professional football team in an upcoming campaign, for example, that notion can be a rather useful one. The following are a handful of examples of just how volatile the results of an NFL season can appear if looked at through the prism of the previous year alone. Bear in mind that most of these figures were compiled by me by hand and that they may therefore be liable to human error.

Starting with the second of our beloved Broncos back to back NFL Championships (1998), only one team has managed to appear in consecutive Super Bowls; in other words, out of the 24 finalists during that span, only one returned to that precipice the following year. Just six out of the twelve postseason competitors last year were returning participants from the previous season and only two franchises currently have consecutive playoff berth streaks longer than two. In the last eight seasons, only 22 of the 64 division titles have been successful defenses and a mere four teams account for 14 of those.

The opposites in futility of those markers of success lie at the top of recent NFL Draft orders. Different cross sections of the top picks can be used as the negative equivalents of the Super Bowl contestants (2) and playoff teams (12). In addition, the bottom of the divisional barrels can be picked out on their own for repeat offenders. With those parameters established, let's determine how consistent the league's worst have been from year to year.

In the last twelve drafts, only two teams managed to secure back-to-back "top two" picks. While 9 of the first 12 picks in the 2010 NFL Draft were awarded to teams that had earned "top twelve" slots in 2009 as well, only four franchises have such active streaks of at least three years. Including the 2003 season, only 22 of the 64 last place finishers in their respective divisions were reprising such dismal failures from the previous year. It is apparent that the results of one year, at least at the extremes, are not to be relied upon when attempting to forecast the following season.

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

You may have noticed that I refrained from immediately identifying those few franchises that bucked the apparent short-term unpredictability of the NFL with their remarkable consistency. If you wish to test your knowledge of league trivia and attempt to identify those teams in question on your own, take a short break now and give it a try. As you may have already imagined, there's quite a bit of overlap in the separate categories that I established. In fact, there are only four unique names comprising the seven notable achievements I singled out. As for the dishonorable mentions: those include at least nine different franchises, of which I'll name six. Whenever you're ready, feel free to move on to the next paragraph for the answers.

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Ready?  OK.  The repeat Super Bowl contenders were the New England Patriots (2004-2005), incidentally winning them both. The active consecutive playoff berth streaks of more than two belong to the Indianapolis Colts (8) and the San Diego Chargers (4). Those three franchises - the Patriots (5), Colts (5) and Chargers (3) - are joined by the Seattle Seahawks (4) to form the aforementioned quartet of division bullies that racked up nearly two-thirds of the back-to-back division championships.

On the flipside of that consistency, the two teams that earned successive "top two" NFL Draft picks were the Cleveland Browns (1999-2000) and the St. Louis Rams (2009-2010). The four franchises that have picked in the "top twelve" of the draft for more than two consecutive seasons, including this past one, are: the Oakland Raiders (7), Buffalo Bills (5), Kansas City Chiefs (3) and the aforementioned Rams (3). Finally, the most prolific back-to-back division losers we the Browns (4), the Houston Texans (3) and five others - including the Raiders (2) and Chiefs (2) - who did it twice; just five other franchises have accomplished that ignominious feat even once and 20 others haven't ever done so.

So, in addition to there being relatively few instances of sustained success or failure - even in the shortest of terms - they've been hoarded by even fewer unique franchises. Benjamin Franklin once wrote: "in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes"; I'll leave it up to you good people to determine which of the aforementioned franchises are the NFL's version of "death" and which others are "taxes"!

Everything Matters

There's a line in George Orwell's classic Animal Farm that I've loved ever since I first read it: "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." To apply this concept to football - and, more specifically, to schedule-watching - it's important to note that changing any aspect of a game can transform that match-up into a very different "animal". Where and when a game is played can be just as important as against whom it is contested. There are plenty of prime examples of this that range from the obvious to the obscure, but they're all equally important. Some of those variables are specific to this season, but others are unearthed by looking at developed trends such as those already discussed above.

Playing against the 2010 Pittsburgh Steelers early on, when they'll be without star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, will be very different to matching up with them later in the year. Playing at New York (in New Jersey) this season - against either the Giants or the Jets - has the added dimension of the opening of their new stadium at the Meadowlands. Being "hosted" by the 49ers in London in Week 8, instead of San Francisco, should make a difference. Playing against teams relying on new signal callers (like the Raiders twice, the Arizona Cardinals and the Rams for our Broncos) is a much bigger deal early on than it is later. These are just a few examples of how different considerations can change the outlook of any game.

Other long term trends to consider are things like time zones traveled, the strength of specific home field advantages, schematic and/or personnel turnover, etc. There are plenty of instances of each of those affecting the 2010 Broncos and I'll take a closer look at them in the future. Of course, everything is fair game in the comments, so feel free to bring any of this up as well.

Questions, Comments or Concerns

When attempting to divine the future of a team based on its schedule, there are more variables than we can possibly even attempt to fathom. That said, the more thought and research we put into the process, the stronger our conclusions will be. This sort of analysis may well always be more art than science, but the best art always has plenty of science behind it. Following our conversation in the comments below, I'll finally take a stab at projecting the results of the 2010 season for our beloved Denver Broncos. Will I be vindicated as the Oracle at MHR or will I be doomed to wander in John Clayton's "mazes of lost"?

With the so-called "dead period" coming to a close now that Training Camp is finally creeping up on the horizon, I do not fear looking even further ahead at the Regular Season and the return of the great game we all love. Before that, however, I had to make sure that I was grounded in my approach so that you can trust my analysis when I breakdown the upcoming schedule. I'm sure that there are aspects that I may have overlooked, so feel free to fill in my blanks. Regardless, I look forward to hashing it out with you all below. As always: cheers, and go Broncos!

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