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Good news, Chargers! The NFL is trying to make scheduling fairer

The University of Buffalo believes they have a fairer algorithm

This week should mark the release of the 2019 NFL schedule, which is always welcome during these cold, dark, dreary days of non-football time. Immediately after the release of said schedule, there is a rush of comments and posts regarding the perceived fairness or lack thereof of each team’s schedule.

The Chargers have often been on the unfortunate side of scheduling issues, though there are certain reasons that this can not be easily remedied. Being a west-coast team in a predominantly east-coast nation is just part of the price of admission. The travel discrepancy is what ultimately made the AFL a viable league back in the 1960s, and some significant crossroads have been crossed since the 1970 merger to blend the two.

The Chargers, Raiders, 49ers, and the Seahawks are all going to have extensive travel bills in this country, but that doesn’t mean that measures can’t be taken to limit the travel toll on each team. Here’s what CBS Sports reported about the 2018 season:

2018 NFL travel miles

(Road games where team travels more than 2,000 miles in parentheses)

1. Raiders: 31,732* (3)

2. Seahawks: 29,068* (1)

3. Chargers: 29,055* (3)

4. Jaguars: 20,278*

5. Eagles: 20,262* (1)

Well, shoot. They’d better have their Chargers-brand charge cards ready to collect those miles. None of this is news, however—it’s just one of the clearer examples of how the schedule can potentially be retooled in the name of parity. Other glaring examples include facing multiple teams coming off of their bye week, Sunday/Thursday short weeks, and divisional cadence (facing the same opponent twice in three weeks).

And, recently, researchers from the University of Buffalo wanted to prove that the schedule could be made at least a bit more fair. The NFL agreed with the researches to the tune of a three-year research grant in November 2018 to provide year-round method development and schedule testing. While the NFL has confirmed this agreement, it hasn’t given any information as to how or if it will be utilized at all. This could just be a facade to make it look like they are addressing fairness, but there is an equal chance that they are indeed looking to make a better, fairer, and stronger product for all to enjoy.

The whole project was sparked by Dr. Mark Karwan’s hometown Buffalo Bills complaining about how often they faced teams who were coming off either a bye or a Thursday night game. This naturally gave their opponents a rest advantage, and the Bills have suffered through enough just trying to keep pace in the AFC East. As it turned out, between 2002 and 2014, the Bills had twice as many of those games as some other teams.

Dr. Karwan’s research isn’t the first of its kind, just the first (and only, as far as I can find!) subsidized by the NFL. In 2015, the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference received Karwan’s comprehensive study that sought to prove the inherent disadvantages to the current scheduling system, and offer ways to remedy the discrepancies.

Their research first sought to prove that there is, indeed, a wide range of variables that can work against schedule parity. They then worked to show that certain variables affect certain teams disproportionately.

Figure 1 (bye week rundown)
MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

From 2003-2012, the Chargers faced bye-week favored teams 5th most in the league. The Falcons really got the short of that stick, while the Cardinals hardly noticed.

That doesn’t mean much if the rest didn’t affect the play on the field, so the MIT team crunched the numbers on win percentage against such opponents.

Figure 2 (win% against rested teams)
MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

Well, it’s not a world-ending difference, but it is a difference. Facing more rested opponents more often puts teams like the Chargers at a statistical disadvantage. It might not manifest itself in a single season, but it is a bias that can be controlled.

In the end, these are just two of the lowest-hanging fruit as far as scheduling examples go. The bye week impact and jet lag are two issues that the Chargers have had to face that have put them at a greater disadvantage than the majority of the NFL.

None of these issues are stronger than the on-field product or the players that make the roster. They are, however, issues that can be better mitigated with a bit of research, forethought, and, as Dr. Karwan indicates, at least 12 hours of supercomputer computation time.

Karwan calculates there are more possible NFL schedules (10 to the 300th) in a given year than there are atoms in the universe (10 to the 80th).

Well, my math doesn’t get me to quite that number, but I’ve never been the best at carrying the zero. If you’re keen to bone up, you can literally play Number Munchers for free at the Internet Archives. What were we talking about, again?

-Jason “DOS for Dumb Me” Michaels